Parsing the Final Iowa Poll

Drumroll, please! The much-hyped Des Moines Register New Year's poll is out—and it shows Obama and Huckabee with strong leads. But can the numbers be trusted?

| Wed Jan. 2, 2008 3:00 AM EST

The Des Moines Register's surveys of Iowa voters are widely considered the best when it comes to predicting the outcome of the state's notoriously difficult-to-read caucuses. Even though caucus results can be influenced by weather, turnout, and the neighbor-to-neighbor interactions that occur within the caucus room, the Register got the results right in 2004. That's why so much of the political world is buzzing about the results of the newspaper's New Year's poll, which shows Obama leading the Democratic race by 7 points (the biggest lead any candidate has held in a DMR poll this year) and Huckabee ahead of the Republican pack by 6.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Democrats

In the Democratic race, according to the DMR survey, Obama is polling at 32 percent, Clinton at 25, and Edwards at 24. (None of the remaining candidates received more than 6 percent.) Interestingly, Obama's lead is due to support from three groups that don't traditionally turn out in huge numbers: first-time caucus-goers, independents, and young voters.

According to the poll, Obama is receiving 72 percent of his support from first-time caucus-goers, compared to just more than 58 and 55 percent for Clinton and Edwards respectively. Nearly 40 percent of independents caucusing in the Democratic race intend to do so for Obama, compared to less than 25 for Clinton and Edwards. And 56 percent of caucus-goers under 35 are supporting Obama, compared to around 15 percent each for Clinton and Edwards.

Iowa polls traditionally discount the three groups composing much of Obama's support because of their unreliability on election day, but the DMR poll is predicting they will turn out in droves. In the newspaper's Democratic sample, 60 percent of likely caucus-goers were first-timers and 40 percent were independents.

Obama's lead may have to do with the fact that Democratic voters are prioritizing change over experience. Thirty percent of respondents said a candidate's ability to affect change was most important, while 27 percent considered a candidate's ability to unify the country as the top priority. Only 18 percent of likely caucus-goers said that having the experience and competence to lead is the most important presidential quality.

The poll should dispel any worries that Obama can't win in Iowa. It also brightens his prospects for the general election, suggesting he may be able to reach independents—but that, of course, will be proven (or not) on caucus night.

Naturally, both the Edwards and Clinton camps have attacked the results of the DMR poll. Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton's chief strategist, criticized the survey for "depicting an unprecedented departure from historically established turnout patterns in the caucus." Obama's rivals also point to other polls that don't find the Illinois senator pulling ahead. A Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby poll taken over the same period as the DMR survey, for instance, has Clinton at 30 percent, Obama at 26, and Edwards at 25. And a CNN poll puts Clinton at 33 percent, Obama at 31, and Edwards at 22.

But the huge numbers of independents and first-time caucus-goers in the race may not be so unbelievable. Dissatisfaction with President Bush and years of Republican leadership in Congress have driven up Iowa's Democratic rolls: Registered Democrats in the state have risen to 603,000 from 531,000 at the end of 2003. All of those voters would be first-time caucus-goers, and many of them, still uncomfortable with their new party affiliation, may label themselves independents in phone surveys. They might be gravitating to Obama's message of reduced partisanship and, as new Democrats, they presumably lack the strong Clinton nostalgia that longtime Democrats possess.

For the Democrats, the politerati are now describing the Iowa caucuses as a 120/135/150 game. As University of Maryland political scientist Tom Schaller explains over at the American Prospect:

If total caucus goers is approaching or exceeding 150,000 (it was about 122k four years ago), that means that older voters are there but also a lot of younger and new, firs-timers [sic], so that favors Obama; if the total is way down close to 2004 levels, that means only the most reliable, veteran caucus-goers are there, which favors Edwards; if the number is somewhat closer to the 135K mid-point, that means reliables and olders are there, but not newbies, and since Clinton is counting on those seniors she's most favored here.

Republicans

On the Republican side, the DMR poll is interesting in that it paints the Republican Party in Iowa as a de facto Christian organization, with nearly half of likely Republican caucus-goers identifying themselves as born-again and fundamentalist Christians. An equal number of Republican respondents said that emphasizing Christian beliefs is in the GOP's best interests.

For the Republican candidates, the numbers break down like this: Mike Huckabee is holding strong at 32 percent, Mitt Romney is at 26, John McCain is mildly resurgent at 13, and Ron Paul ties Fred Thompson with 9. Rudy Giuliani, nose-diving from a November showing of 13 percent, is currently polling at just 5 percent.

The Republican results in the DMR poll are replicated by other surveys, though some show Romney leading the field. The recent CNN poll puts Romney at 31 percent, Huckabee at 28, Thompson at 13, McCain at 10, and Giuliani and Paul tied at 8 percent. The Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby poll has Huckabee at 29 percent and Romney at 25. Pollster John Zogby notes that McCain and Thompson, in the process of jockeying for third place, could affect the top of the Republican race. "Every point McCain gains comes from Romney, and Thompson's gains come from Huckabee," he told the AP, highlighting the fact that McCain and Romney appear to be competing for independent and moderate votes, while Huckabee and Thompson are drawing their support from Christian and ultraconservative voters.

All poll numbers come with a huge caveat: large numbers of Iowan voters refuse to tie themselves down to one candidate. Roughly a third of likely Democratic caucus-goers in the DMR poll said they could be persuaded to choose another candidate before Thursday evening and nearly one half of likely Republican caucus-goers said the same. Meanwhile, six percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers and four percent of likely Republican caucus-goers have yet to make up their minds who they'll be backing. There's plenty of room for a swing in one direction or another before the real counting begins.