An Iowa-Earful on Political Polling


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Let me add an Iowa-ear view on the earlier posts on the reliability of polling in Iowa. (first post and second post)
In previous incarnations I have had the pleasure of administering political polls, putting the thumb-screws to poll numbers in graduate school, and even teaching a college course on public opinion. But until recently — until I moved to Iowa — I can’t really say that I have had the pleasure of being a poll-ee. And now, of course, my phone won’t stop ringing.
At first it was kind of fun. My opinion counts! Cool. But when you find that you can’t even make it through dinner without the phone ringing. . .and ringing. . .and ringing. . .the whole process starts to lose its charm. It may only be once every four years, but I can’t for the life of me understand how my friends here who have been subjected to this their whole lives survive.
Its not that the calls themselves, in themselves, are annoying: By and large the people out here making campaign and polling calls are polite, sincere, and really care about what they are doing. They are, in fact, pretty much everything that makes this country great. (The pollsters are just in it for the money, but I suppose that is also what makes the country great.)
But it is the relentless number of the calls. After a few weeks of the nightly ritual — and we are talking multiple calls every night for weeks on end, not just polls but from the different campaigns, various “not campaign affiliated” interest groups and 527s — well, after a while it starts to get to you. And then you start to fight back. So you stop answering the phone. That one is easy and happens a lot. Or you start to play games, just to alleviate the tedium (Right now I am trying to learn how to answer the phone with a suitable machine-line intonation to see if can trick the voice recognition software everyone uses and that only routes calls to live humans.
No luck yet, but I still have a few days to get it right. . .) Or you start to toy with the pollsters or to conceal preferences, just for the hell of it. Not lies — this is Iowa, after all — but just saying things that are suitably opaque to offer passive-aggressive resistance to what by all appearances is a social science experiment run amok.
A pollster asked me yesterday if I planned to caucus. My response? “Unless struck dead in the next eight days.” I assume they coded me as a “certain caucus goer”, but who knows; perhaps, I went under the “likely caucus goer” code instead. Or, maybe they did a cross-check with my doctor and put me under “possible caucus goer.” I have no idea. But I imagine that there is someone on some campaign losing sleep tonight as they try to make sense of the cross-tabs of the latest poll, and how certain-likely-possible caucus goers for their candidate line-up against the others.
And a good friend likes to tell a story of a polling call that ended with the pollster, frustrated, I guess, by my friend claiming still to be undecided, fuming “We know you people just don’t like to tell us what you think” and then hanging up on her.
And that is the second reason why the numbers are and will likely be suspect over the next few days: Things are really really fluid out here, still. In the past few days I have spoken with any number of people on the Democratic side who have cycled through supporting two or three or four different candidates in as many days. Its not that these people are flakes or prone to indecision. It is that they think — rightly — that there are several great choices to choose from, and are having a hard time weighing up the pros and cons of each. And they are listening, with genuine interest, to the “closing arguments” being made by the candidates.
Clearly part of good poll design is gaming all these obstacles so you can still come up with a good sample and a reliable poll. And while I recognize that it is generally not considered good form for the patient on the table to offer advice to the doctor about to perform the operation, my guidance for those trying to figure out with poll-like precision what Iowa is going to do is to give it up.
You’ll know when we do, sometime late in the evening on January 3.
— Michael Schiffer
Michael Schiffer is The Washington Note’s blogger for the Iowa Caucuses and is a resident of Iowa. He is a program officer in Policy Analysis and Dialogue at the Stanley Foundation based in Muscatine, Iowa — and was previously senior national security adviser and legislative director in the Office of Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)


4 comments on “An Iowa-Earful on Political Polling

  1. jhm says:

    Dan Kervick: I imagine that they match general characteristics (sex, age, yada yada) with with past results and don’t actually know whether your wife did or did not vote or tell a pollster last cycle about her intentions.
    Factors such as are described in this post make me wonder even more about the categories usually left out of polling results: ‘refused’ and ‘don’t know.’


  2. Carroll says:

    “Iraq now Costing 15 Billion a Month”
    I think we need to skip elections and go ahead and close down our Washington factory. Obviously we can’t afford to pump any more money into this failing operation. Demand payment from the holders of the already sold off assets, divide the money between the states and call it a day.


  3. totalreno says:

    If Obama is so convinced that washington experience is a hinderence
    to solving our domestic and global problems, then he must immediately
    dismiss all of his staff and advisors that have 5 years or more of
    experience in washington.
    If he does not, then he must explain to the people of iowa and new
    hampshire why it is ok for him not to have experience but to compeletly
    depend on “the masters of a corrupt and broken system” to provide him
    with counsel, fill out his staff and and potential administration.
    I would really like to see him try to answer that question.


  4. Dan Kervick says:

    It’s interesting that you received a call last night about whether you planned to caucus. My wife was called last night, here in New Hampshire, and asked whether she planned to vote in the primary. I assumed like you that this is part of preliminary identification of “likely primary voters”, and that she will receive another call this weekend about her actual preference.
    But I was wondering about something. I assumed my wife’s answer about her intention to vote is combined with other data on whether she has voted in the past to identify her as a likely voter. Pollsters don’t just identify likely voters on the basis of which people *say* they are going to vote, do they?


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