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Candidates Battle for Iowa Support as Caucuses Approach

January 1, 2008 at 6:10 PM EST
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Candidates launched their final push to get out the vote in Iowa's Thursday caucuses, as two new polls showed support for candidates fluctuating. Judy Woodruff gives an update on the scene in Iowa, and a pollster explains the reliability and accuracy of pre-election polling.
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RAY SUAREZ: There are just two days to go before the first votes are cast in the 2008 presidential primaries. Judy Woodruff is in Iowa for Thursday night’s caucus and joins us now.

And, Judy, a lot of organizations are polling right now in Iowa. What are they saying, if we look for the broad overview, and have they been pretty consistent?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, hi, Ray. As you know, as we always make this caveat, polling notoriously difficult in a caucus system, because it’s not just what your preference is, it’s who actually gets to the caucus, casts the ballot. It doesn’t matter what you think if you don’t show up.

Having said that, there have been eight public polls done among Democratic caucus attendees since Christmas Day, and they all show the three bunched up in the lead, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards.

Four of them show Clinton with a lead of anywhere from 1 to 7 points. One of them shows Edwards with a small lead. One actually shows a tie among the three of them, and two of them show Barack Obama in the lead, including a brand-new poll out just last night, the Iowa poll done for the Des Moines Register.

"Likely" voters go for Obama

J. Ann Selzer
The Iowa Poll
We put our method in place, and we let the voters speak to us. And we found that 60 percent of the people who told us they were definitely or probably going to the caucus indicated that it would be their first time at caucus.

RAY SUAREZ: Is that an outlier? Is it saying something that's radically different from what you see in the other polls?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, among what -- they ask people, "Are you a definite or a likely caucusgoer?" And among those 800-some-odd people they interviewed around the state, Obama in the lead with 32 percent to Hillary Clinton's 25 percent and John Edwards' 24 percent.

This is the largest lead that is seen anywhere, we've seen anywhere for Barack Obama like this in Iowa. And the other campaigns are reacting immediately. They're asking, "What was the methodology? Who did they interview? Who did they assume was going to show up?"

And so to get some answers to those questions, we want to the woman who directs the Iowa poll for the Des Moines Register, and we put those questions right to her. She's Ann Selzer.

Ann Selzer, thank you very much for talking with us.

Today's Iowa poll is out. You're assuming that 60 percent of the voters in the Democratic caucuses will be first-time caucus attendees. How did you assume that? Why did you assume it?

ANN SELZER, Des Moines Register: Well, actually, I assumed nothing. That's what my data told me.

We put our method in place, and we let the voters speak to us. And we found that 60 percent of the people who told us they were definitely or probably going to the caucus indicated that it would be their first time at caucus.

It's not all that much bigger than 2004. It was 45 percent then. But this stands to be a historic caucus, in terms of turnout.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I'm asking this because both the Clinton and the Edwards campaign are questioning your methodology.

ANN SELZER: Well, of course they're reacting, because they're not in the lead. And I would expect them to find criticisms.

In terms of the first-time caucusgoers, even if we statistically play with the data and say, "OK, well, let's make it look like 2004," Barack Obama still wins. So that's a pretty robust finding, and we feel pretty good about it.

Major independent participation

J. Ann Selzer
The Iowa Poll
As you know in this campaign, just keeping your ear to the ground, there are a lot of people who are independent who are planning to come to caucus. The campaigns are certainly courting independents.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You're also saying that 40 percent of the voters in the Democratic caucuses are going to be independents. How do you know that?

ANN SELZER: Well, again, that's what our data is telling us. And is that a surprise? Sure. It's something that would raise an eyebrow, because that's more independents than would have come to any previous caucus.

But as you know in this campaign, just keeping your ear to the ground, there are a lot of people who are independent who are planning to come to caucus. The campaigns are certainly courting independents.

And the trick with all of this is that Democrats, to people who proclaim that they are Democrats, are more for Hillary Clinton. And so, people who are more independent are more likely to vote for Barack Obama.

So you try playing with those numbers, and you can come up with any different scenarios. But, again, this is what our data is telling us, and we feel comfortable with it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, again, you were looking at voters who say they are either definitely or...

ANN SELZER: Or probably...

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... probably.

ANN SELZER: ... going to attend. And that gives us the advantage, Judy, also to take a look at just those definite attenders and say, "OK, well, what's the core of what's going to happen here?" And when you look only at those, it is still a Barack Obama win.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You also are being criticized because this polling was done over a holiday, between Christmas and New Year's, and it was done over a weekend. What do you say to those who say that skews your results?

ANN SELZER: Well, our polling before caucuses traditionally included some weekend interviewing, because the caucuses come typically on a Monday. So there's no greater skew here.

We were in a huge predicament, when they announced the caucuses on January 3rd, is when exactly can you poll? If we finish before Christmas, we just thought too much could be happening. And, obviously, there's a point where you have to stop.

And we thought we don't want to be polling on New Year's Eve. So we had four days so it would be the freshest data we could have. I mean, we took our best shot.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ann Selzer, thanks very much.

ANN SELZER: You're very welcome.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Ray, Ann Selzer added, as always, organization matters. Who these campaigns get to turn up at the caucuses makes all the difference. She said, you know, that has to be factored in.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, as you mentioned, the other campaigns have already reacted to these interesting poll results.

Mark Penn, the chief strategist for the Clinton campaign, says, "We do not see this poll as accurately reflecting the trends we're seeing in other polls, on our nightly canvasses, or in our own polls, and voters should understand this is a very close race and their participation on caucus night could make all the difference."

From the Edwards campaign, we hear from Harrison Hickman, one of their pollsters. He says, "Is the poll accurate? There are good reasons to think it is not. The poll was conducted during the holiday and over the weekend. There's plenty of evidence that either of these would make it more difficult to obtain a representative sample."

On the right, Huckabee vs. Romney

Judy Woodruff
Senior Correspondent, NewsHour
You're seeing pretty much a consistent picture on the part of the Republicans. Mike Huckabee in the lead of most of them; Mitt Romney up in the other three polls anywhere from 3 points to 9 points.

RAY SUAREZ: Judy, let's move to look at the Republicans. What are the latest polls showing there?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Ray, of the seven public polls that have been done here in Iowa, again, just since Christmas Day, four of them -- including the newest Iowa poll, the same poll we were just talking about, except among likely or definite Republican caucus attendees -- four of them have Mike Huckabee up, including this, as I say, this Iowa poll.

But they all have him up anywhere from 2 to 6 points. The Iowa poll has him up 6 points. And behind him, they have Mitt Romney. And then they go back and forth, the other polls go back and forth as to whether the third and fourth places are John McCain or Fred Thompson.

So you're seeing pretty much a consistent picture on the part of the Republicans. Mike Huckabee in the lead of most of them; Mitt Romney up in the other three polls anywhere from 3 points to 9 points.

And, as Ann Selzer pointed out to me, the interesting thing there is John McCain moving consistently higher in people's estimation. So you could say it's anybody's guess. We are seeing some patterns here.

RAY SUAREZ: We've been saying all along that this front-loaded campaign schedule presents some challenges. Has the closeness or the perceived closeness of this race kept some candidates in the state perhaps longer than they wanted to be where they might otherwise have already been looking ahead down the calendar to New Hampshire?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ray, for the candidates who are in the lead here, whether it's the Democrats or the Republicans, Iowa is everything for them. You know, you can make all sorts of arguments about, well, they can make it up later. But for Obama, for Edwards, Iowa critically important.

The argument is made for Hillary Clinton she could lose and go on to fight another day, because of her massive national organization and national name recognition. But they are all treating Iowa like it is enormously important, and the same for the two leaders on the Republican side, Huckabee and Romney. They are treating this like it's the end all and be all.

Now, we know it's the beginning, but they see a boost that they can potentially get out of here as being very, very important. Rudy Giuliani is not here campaigning right now. John McCain has been here; he has left. Fred Thompson has been here and moved on.

So we are -- you know, the candidates who know Iowa is important, they're here and they're staying here, no matter what the calendar says.

Flurry of last-minute campaigning

Judy Woodruff
Senior Correspondent, NewsHour
There were a number of people there who were still undecided, really wrestling with this. In some cases, they're down to two, three, four candidates they're still looking at.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, between the national holiday, the weather and the bowl games, if you wanted to find voters, is it even easy to do?

JUDY WOODRUFF: You do. And I'll tell you, what Mitt Romney is doing today, he's going from house to house all over the state dropping in on house parties where they're watching football games.

I went this morning to a rally here in Des Moines that the Obama campaign put on. It was a rally, but it was also an effort to stir up their precinct captains to make sure people are going out there to get those warm bodies to the caucuses. Very well attended, a lot of interest.

But I will also tell you, Ray, there were a number of people there who were still undecided, really wrestling with this. In some cases, they're down to two, three, four candidates they're still looking at. We were told today there's a woman who has downloaded all the position papers for four different Democrats; she still can't decide what she's going to do. These Iowans take this very seriously.

RAY SUAREZ: Judy Woodruff in Polk County, Iowa. Happy new year, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to you, thanks.