Eleven Three Twenty: About That Iowa Poll Showing Trump +7…
November 1, 2020
I hadn’t planned on a column today, but I decided I had to address the Des Moines Register poll that is getting so much media attention this morning because it illustrates a critical point about interpreting late polling this year.
As soon as I saw the headlines claiming President Trump was now pulling away from former Vice President Joe Biden in Iowa, I got suspicious. Why? Because Trump’s 7-point advantage over Biden in that poll is so out of line with other recent Iowa polls showing a much closer race.
Granted, the President might be pulling away from his Democratic challenger. After all, he comfortably won Iowa by 9.4% in 2016 and was expected to win it again this year. Also, the poll simply could be a statistical outlier. However, I had a suspicion that the results illustrated something I’ve been hypothesizing about for a few days. And, sure enough, a little investigation supported my hypothesis.
First, here’s the hypothesis. Unless pollsters are very careful with the wording and sample respondents of their final polls, they risk skewing the results of late polling heavily in the President’s favor due to the tremendous split between the make up of early voters and Election Day voters. Hear me out…
Numerous polls, including this one from CNN, have clearly shown that the majority of Biden supporters planned on voting prior to Election Day. (And as of this morning, over 92 million Americans have already cast their vote, according to Dr. Michael McDonald of the United States Election Project.) Meanwhile, the majority of Trump supporters plan on casting their ballots more traditionally on Election Day.
Sure enough, when I looked at the exact wording the pollsters used in this Iowa poll it was as follows: “If the general election were held today, for whom would you vote?” Nowhere in Selzer & Co.’s polling methodology (at least that I could find) did they ask A) if people had already voted and B) for whom they had cast their vote. Therefore, I’m forced to conclude that this poll only reflects the views of Iowans who have yet to vote. And if that’s the case, I would argue that Joe Biden being down by ONLY 7% is a good sign for the Democratic challenger.
In the end, we’ll have to wait and see just how close Iowa is on Tuesday. But the bigger question to me is how much we can trust these last-minute polls — unless the pollster in question has specifically sampled likely voters AND those who have already cast their ballots.
For those of you wondering why I’m qualified to write about this topic, I have a Ph.D. in Human Communication Studies from the University of Denver — with an emphasis on leadership, power, and persuasion. My dissertation research focused on political communication, specifically Ross Perot’s 1992 Presidential campaign (“A Mythic Analysis of Ross Perot’s 1992 Campaign Infomercials as a Modern American Jeremiad”). And I have worked on — or consulted for — a number of political campaigns, ranging from the mayoral to the Presidential level.