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Saucer-Plus: Polls are more predictive than the Iowa Caucuses
Despite the emphasis placed on Iowa by campaigns and the media, winning the state has not proven to be very predictive of overall success in Presidential primary contests.
Note from the Editor: Every now and then, we get a piece best suited for our Daily Saucer section but whose length goes beyond our typical 500-word limit for these kinds of “rank punditry” takes and analyses. When this happens, and when the piece is worthy, we’ll post such an issue of the Daily Saucer as our morning offering, under the label “Saucer-Plus.”
There is a lot of online discourse about polls not being predictive, and some of the same people are certain that winning the Iowa Caucus is going to make a difference in the GOP nomination. Twitter Warriors—which sounds a lot cooler than “X Warriors”—for Ron DeSantis will insist until they are blue in the face that polls are not predictive and despite his increasingly insurmountable polling deficit behind Donald Trump in Iowa, he is going to win the state.
Maybe the polls are wrong, but even if there is a 40-point polling error entirely in favor of Donald Trump, it also doesn’t matter if Governor DeSantis wins Iowa but then loses New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, and 30 other states because winning Iowa is not like catching the Snitch in Quidditch.
Iowa is not representative of the electorate—no single state is truly representative of the entire electorate. Winning Iowa can be the difference between fundraising numbers for January and maybe February, but it isn’t the difference between the nominee and also-rans. Polling well in Iowa while being third place nationally does not improve your chances of winning the nomination or the general election. If your poll numbers and fundraising trend downwards, this is especially true.
Back in January of 2000, George W. Bush won the Iowa Caucus for the Republican nomination for President. Later that summer, he secured the nomination and defeated Democratic nominee Al Gore (who also won the Iowa Caucus) that November. He was the last Republican to win the Iowa Caucus and the nomination.
In 2008, the young Illinois Senator, Barack Obama, won the Iowa Caucus in what is generally viewed as an upset against then-New York Senator and former First Lady Hillary Clinton. After a long primary, he was nominated and defeated John McCain (who tied for third in Iowa) in the general election. Hillary Clinton won the Iowa Caucus in 2016—edging out Bernie Sanders that year. She was the last nominee who also won the Iowa Caucus for either major party. The Iowa Caucus may be the first nomination contest in the nation, and kicks off the actual voting for nominees, but it is far from the bellwether it used to be.
In the 2008 nomination contest, despite placing 3rd at Iowa, Arizona Senator John McCain led national polls as early as January 2008 and went on to win New Hampshire and the majority of states on Super Tuesday. More recently, Joe Biden led national polls throughout the summer of 2019. After the Iowa Caucus (where he placed a distant 4th behind Pete Buttigieg), his poll numbers dipped, but he decisively won the South Carolina primary and then wrapped up the nomination shortly after.
Donald Trump had an increasing lead in polls in 2015 and 2016. In the lead-up to the general election, national polling showed Trump within the margin of error, but state-level polling showed the race for electoral votes a lot closer than most people were willing to admit. The polls weren’t wrong, per se, in 2016, but the interpretation and reporting of those polls were biased against a result the reporters didn’t want to accept as possible. Candidates polling well do well when people go out to vote. Candidates who are popular everywhere tend to do well in Iowa as well. There has been a correlation between winning Iowa and becoming the nominee, but far too many people have mistaken that for causation.
Currently, Donald Trump sits atop national and state-level polls—in some cases with a majority. It is really tempting to repeat the refrain that we can’t trust the polls or they aren’t predictive this early on. There is probably a lot to say about polls of less than 1000 people in Iowa and polling firms that rely entirely on landline phones or online polls. However, polls and polling trends have proven to be more predictive than any individual nominating contest or even debate performances. Polls correlate pretty closely with the final results (within the margin of error), and discounting them even this far out is foolhardy.
Both the Haley and DeSantis camps need to recognize that they are 30+ points behind Donald Trump, and neither of them actually has the ability to peel away support from the former President unless they start targeting him and the voters who are defaulting to him in polls. Americans are neither tuning in to the debates nor the televised fraud trial. Meeting voters face to face and making the case for an alternative choice is going to be the only way to close that gap. Putting money and boots on the ground is where elections are won. Posting memes and being snarky on the Internet is not how you win over voters. Obtuse and toxic posts on social media turn off voters to your favored candidate more often than not. The candidates and the supporters have to be better and more informed.
I don’t mean to be Cassandraesque, but candidates and voters should not approach the GOP nomination with rose-tinted glasses. We cannot be blind to difficult realities that are based on statistics and history. Winning Iowa (or sinking all of your money into trying to win Iowa) is not a great long-term strategy. The correlation of eventual nominees winning Iowa in previous decades may have less to do with Iowa and more to do with the fact that people leading in polls win elections.
Donald Trump is still popular among polled Republican voters despite literally hundreds of federal and state indictments. Many Americans are not necessarily tracking the legal troubles of the former President, and that does add some volatility to polling. But the overall trends still point strongly towards an uphill battle for Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis.
Thaddeus Winker received his Bachelor’s degree from Xavier University, where he studied the classics and theology, and received his Master’s degree in Bible Studies from The Catholic University of America. He currently works as a Senior Software Engineer. @Thadypus
Saucer-plus, an extension of the Daily Saucer, offers extended treatments of takes on the news cycle and punditry-oriented observations on political issues and campaigns. The views offered in this space reflect only the personal views of the authors.
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