Iowa roundup: A pox on the polls

Here are some just-typed notions to carry you through the last break in the political action before the caucuses.

By Walter Shapiro
November 25, 2007 3:53AM (UTC)
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Since this is National Leftovers Weekend, I am taking advantage of a last lull in the campaign calendar (until buyer's remorse sets in come early February, when we have presumptive nominees in both parties) to sweep the cutting-room floor after my recent reporting trip to Iowa:

I am planning to etch this phrase over the screen on my new laptop computer: "Remember, despite the evidence to the contrary, somebody has to win the Republican nomination."


The rise of Mike Huckabee in Iowa, even though it may prove evanescent, offers a cautionary lesson to reporters (myself included) about the dangers of overhyping the importance of fundraising prowess. Through the end of September, Huckabee had collected only $2.3 million, mostly from small change found under sofa cushions in his office. Mitt Romney, in contrast, had raked in $62.8 million and has the capacity to lend himself, say, an additional $25 million for the final push. Yet the two former governors appear to be running neck-and-neck in Iowa.

It is within the realm of possibility that the victors in the first two GOP contests could be the major candidates with the smallest current bank accounts -- Huckabee in Iowa and the once free-spending, but now impoverished John McCain in New Hampshire. While by then Huckabee and McCain may be reduced to traveling by pogo stick rather than chartered jet, both candidates have the sense of humor and the knack for candor needed to dominate the post-New Hampshire news coverage or, as it is known in campaign lingo, the "free media." And, in presidential politics, positive news stories about intriguing candidates winning upset victories usually trump 30-second television ads.

I remain a major-league skeptic about Iowa polling for a simple reason: No one knows exactly who will attend the Jan. 3 caucuses, which are being held this close to the holidays for the first time in history. An adroit pollster may paint an accurate portrait of sentiments of the larger universe of Iowa Democratic (or Republican) voters, but miss completely in guessing which of these voters will make the commitment to turn out on a cold Thursday night (there is no absentee voting at a caucus) to put their thumbs on the scale of presidential politics.


Every time I read an Iowa poll -- such as the overhyped ABC News/Washington Post survey that vaulted Barack Obama into the lead -- I think of voters like the petite 75-year-old woman wearing a dark blue dress whom I met at a Hillary Clinton rally Monday night in Tama. The woman in blue, who did not want her name used, talked about how she has been scrupulously studying the candidates and the issues to become an informed voter. But when I inquired whether she intended to caucus for Hillary, her chosen favorite, the Tama woman asked in a puzzled voice, "Where would I go to do that?" My guess is that she will not leave her home on the night of Jan. 3. But the Clinton campaign -- which recently put together an amusing online instructional video about how "being married is hard ... but caucusing is easy" -- may be well organized enough to lure her to participate for the first time in her life.

But if you were a pollster, would you count her as a likely caucusgoer in an Iowa survey? A strong argument against including her stems from her ignorance about caucus procedures and her lack of prior caucus activity. But this is a year when three Democratic campaigns in Iowa (Clinton, Obama and John Edwards) appear to have the organizational muscle to turn out marginal voters like the woman in blue from Tama -- and a poll that excludes too many of these possible first-time caucusgoers could be as inaccurate as a survey that includes too many nonparticipants.

Card counting has become my favorite nonscientific method to try to gauge whether the Iowans who come out to hear a candidate are window shoppers or committed partisans. To give away my patented trade secret, all I do is stand by an exit at the conclusion of a candidate's speech and calculate what percentage of the crowd fills out caucus cards pledging their troth on Jan. 3.


At Excelsior Middle School in Marion last Sunday, Karen Wohlleben, a staffer from Obama's nearby Cedar Rapids office, called out hopefully, "You need to get a caucus card signed?" Even though Obama had just spoken to more than 500 Iowa Democrats, Wohlleben's cheerful sales pitch fell flat. By my reckoning, only 21 of the 192 exiting adults who walked by Wohlleben filled out a caucus card or gave a convincing indication that they had already signed up with the campaign. In contrast, Hillary Clinton generated about a 40 percent caucus card rate the next night in Tama.

Is this crude, seat-of-the-pants method the Rosetta Stone for interpreting the caucuses? Of course not. But neither is slavishly overreacting to every gyration in the Iowa polls. Six weeks before the 2004 Iowa caucuses, the respected Pew Research Center released a poll of likely caucusgoers that featured Howard Dean leading with 29 percent and Dick Gephardt second with 21 percent. John Kerry was limping along in third place with 18 percent, while John Edwards came in at a woeful 5 percent. The final 2004 caucus results: Kerry 38 percent, Edwards 32 percent, Dean 18 percent, Gephardt 11 percent.


The 2008 Iowa caucuses -- in case you have not grasped the moral -- are now six weeks (minus two days) away.

Walter Shapiro

Walter Shapiro, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked as Salon's Washington bureau chief, as well as for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Hillary Rodham Clinton John Mccain R-ariz.