The first votes of the 2016 presidential campaign resulted in a reality check for the candidate who has spent weeks touting his sizable lead in public polling. But does Ted Cruz’s victory in Monday’s Iowa Caucuses over Donald Trump signal that we’re in for a primary season that will be littered with bad polls? Not necessarily.
“Give me 49 other states, but Iowa is just so difficult given their system,” Republican pollster Adam Probolsky told C&E. “It’s a very bad place to grade the research industry.”
Polling has suffered no shortage of high-profile failures over the past four years, and the survey research industry is certain to be in the hot seat for the duration of the primary campaign and straight through November’s general election. But even though Monday’s results differed from the pre-caucus public polling, most notably on the Republican side, polling the Iowa Caucuses is one of the toughest challenges in the industry.
The fluid nature of the process, and the large number of voters who make their final decisions in the 48 hours before they caucus makes it tough for even the best polls to nail the final results. And Monday’s record-breaking turnout made what was already a quagmire for pollsters a next to impossible task, argued Probolsky.
“Having to poll in a place where the people showing up are brand new, which is the case here, that’s a very hard job to have,” the California-based pollster said. “[In California] you have a sterile, inelastic electorate that’s really just little movements of the dial, but in Iowa you have these massive shifts.”
Heading into Monday, several public polls gave Trump a clear lead over Cruz. And the venerable Des Moines Register poll, conducted by one of the industry’s best, Ann Selzer, had Trump up five points over Cruz.
Once the results on the GOP side were clear, the polling analysis quickly made its way online. Democratic pollster Margie Omero rejected the notion the Iowa results were a “total failure,” pointing out on Twitter that the numbers accurately predicted Rubio’s surge.
“All you pollster-haters really seeing glass half empty here,” Omero tweeted. “Polls showed very tight Dem race and Rubio rise.”
While the final Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll did show a tight race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, giving Clinton a 45 percent to 42 percent lead over her rival, a handful of other late polls had Clinton up between 8 – 10 percentage points. With 99 percent of precincts in early Tuesday morning, Clinton led Sanders by a razor thin margin: 49.8 percent to 49.6 percent.
Nate Silver took to FiveThirtyEight’s live blog, specifically to defend the Des Moines Register’s Ann Selzer, arguing that while the 8-point differential in her final poll of the GOP race and the actual result “sounds really bad,” polling any caucus or primary is notoriously difficult.
“The average error in a primary or caucus poll is 8 points, in fact,” Silver wrote. “Plus, it looks like there was some late-breaking movement toward Rubio and Cruz that [Selzer’s] poll wasn’t in the field late enough to pick up. It won’t be a poll she brags about, and perhaps it’s an argument for keeping a tracking poll in the field until the very last day of campaigning. But all of this is fairly par for the course.”
As for the surge in turnout, Democratic pollster Stefan Hankin noted that his data showed high turnout would actually hurt Trump, contrary to the more common narrative that a turnout surge would help the frontrunner. Based on his data, Hankin theorized the higher turnout was likely from evangelicals activated by Cruz’s turnout operation.
“The turnout on the Republican side was certainly a shock,” Hankin said. “I don’t think anyone was expecting this.”
Brent Buchanan, managing partner at Cygnal, a Republican communications and research firm, said the GOP caucus results weren’t so unexpected given the way the polling averages were trending over the past three weeks. Moving forward, he expects pollsters to have to compensate for surging turnout.
“The pollsters are going to have to look at these next states coming up and consider what they will look like under this increased turnout,” Buchanan said.
The biggest takeaway for the Trump campaign, at least according to Probolsky: “If they’re not polling internally, they need to start.”