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Poll Predicts Three-Way Nail-Biter In Iowa Caucuses


Last Wednesday, Ann Selzer could not be cajoled into even a hint of the final Iowa poll as she joined the Political Junkie. Selzer and the company - and her company polls for the Des Moines Register and for Bloomberg. It's considered the gold standard in Iowa. And the Register published the results on Saturday night. It showed Mitt Romney in front, followed closely by Ron Paul and Rick Santorum surging into third. Ann Selzer joins us again from Iowa Public Radio. Nice to have you back on the program.

ANN SELZER: Great to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And often, it's not just the raw numbers but movement that's interesting. You poll over four days. What did you find?

SELZER: Well, you know, if I had divulged what we were seeing when I was with you last, it would have looked completely different by the time our poll was actually published. On the first day of that poll, we had Ron Paul with a huge lead, and we had Rick Santorum sort of finally breaking into double digits. And by the end of the poll, Ron Paul had fallen 13 points. Rick Santorum had doubled his support. So by the end of our polling period, we ended up with Romney holding steady and holding onto a lead. Ron Paul, Rick Santorum kind of jockeying for that second-place position.

CONAN: But one of them seemingly falling, the other surging.

SELZER: Yes. Just - I have never seen such a dramatic change over four days of interviewing.

CONAN: And there was another candidate who was in charge, at least in the lead, a month earlier when you last took the poll. Newt Gingrich not doing so well now.

SELZER: Newt Gingrich not doing so well now. He is in the low teens along with Rick Perry. Michele Bachmann has not made it into double digits in quite some time.

CONAN: And as you look at this volatility, have you ever seen anything like this?

SELZER: I have never seen, in our final poll, this much change this fast. Now I carry around a graph from 2004 to remind me that things do change in the final days. We started with Howard Dean competing for the lead and then ending up, on our final day of polling, in fourth place. So that reminded me that things do shift. But this is far more swift, far more volatility, far more dramatic.

CONAN: And so, if things are happening that quickly, this snapshot even a couple of days ago may not tell the story of what's happening today.

SELZER: Well, you know, clearly, people will react to this poll and have a different feel for what's playing out in this Republican caucus. You know, our sense was that where did the Santorum surge come from? And one theory is it came from a recent CNN poll that showed him doing well. That poll was just of Republicans, so it would have underplayed Ron Paul, so we kind of, you know, set it aside. But once we saw the Santorum surge, you know, some of these things become self-fulfilling prophecies.

But certainly, all the campaigns are working to try to change these numbers. So the Ron Paul campaign is going to be trying to reinstate the lead that it had. The Romney campaign is going to look to keep what it has and hopefully build a bit more. And Santorum is looking to keep that trajectory going up. They're all working hard. They're all spending money to make exactly those three things happen.

CONAN: And you're talking about - volatility and movement. It seems that the one - one of the steady people has been Mitt Romney, who's been, well, just, I think, a little bit better every time in your poll.

SELZER: He had a bad poll last time in November. He had dropped down to 16, but he's sort of back to that roughly 25 percent, 24 percent where he's been on all our other polls and many other polls in Iowa.

CONAN: And there are some people who say, wait a minute, that seems to be his cap. Does your polling suggest that that is about the size he can get?

SELZER: Well, you know, people are going to still change. I don't know that I have any data that says it's a cap. You know, one interesting thing about this race, Neal, is that, to me, it's a choice that Republicans seem to be making or the tension is, you know, is this a time to send a message about what candidate we send? Or this is a time to get somebody elected? And Mitt Romney ends up with almost half of the people in our polls saying he's the most electable.

Well, now, if he only gets 24 percent as their first choice, clearly, there are a lot more people who think he's electable. To me that says, if that becomes the driving issue, if Republicans get together on caucus night and talk about whom they should nominate, that's potential room for Mitt Romney.

CONAN: We're talking with Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Company, the public opinion research firm that polls for The Des Moines Register and Bloomberg. She's with us from Iowa Public Radio in Des Moines. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And what about those further down the ticket? It seems that Rick Perry seems to have rebounded a bit.

SELZER: Well, Rick Perry is sort of playing with a couple of point margin. He is, you know, steady around 10 percent, a little bit higher, a little bit lower. His numbers have not really move in our polls really all year. We were not in the field with the poll when he was at his height of popularity, so our polls basically have him unchanged.

CONAN: And Michele Bachmann, again, her popularity would have preceded your poll as well.

SELZER: Well, we caught her in June and she was tying with Romney as the front-runner then and never since.

CONAN: And never since. So we've seen - Herman Cain, we've neglected to mention briefly at the top of the polls, too, and now out of the race. It is this extraordinary procession, and some people have likened it to Republicans with that steady performance of Mitt Romney at or near the top of the polls throughout, looking for an alternative and trying one person out after another. Does that seem to make sense to you?

SELZER: Well, you know, that certainly is plausible. We looked in our data every single way we could think of to identify the anybody-but-Romney vote, and we found no bigger cadre for Romney than we found for Gingrich or for Ron Paul. You know, I think it certainly sort of makes sense about why his numbers never grow. But in Iowa, he didn't come to the state. He didn't want to appear to care too much about Iowa. So, to me, that's a stronger reason why his numbers haven't really grown.

CONAN: And he seems to have change his mind over the past couple of weeks, not just campaigning in Iowa personally, although he's made a couple of trips to New Hampshire as well, but never - but pouring a lot of money into the race, both for himself and through the Super PAC.

SELZER: Well, and there seems to be some pent-up demand to see him now that he's actually here, so his crowds are quite are big. And that - those may be people who have a different first choice candidate but they want to be sure that they give him at least one look.

CONAN: And then, we're going to New Hampshire in next week. And, of course, our Political Junkie will be in New Hampshire on Wednesday as we look at race there. Of course, we'll be looking at the results from Iowa, as well, but that's a very different electorate.

SELZER: It's a very different electorate and it's a very different race. One of the polls we did Iowa was - we had a companion poll in New Hampshire, this was for Bloomberg News. And we looked at the results, and Iowa was fascinating. Everything seemed to be moving and changing. And New Hampshire just seems so static and just nothing really moving up there. So I know that some of the candidates are leaving Iowa and skipping New Hampshire to go directly to South Carolina. It is a different kind of electorate. It's a primary, so things lock in a little bit earlier. You know, it is a more moderate state. It's less influence of social conservatives.

CONAN: And open primary, so independents can vote in the Republican primary as well.

SELZER: But keep in mind, Neal, if you're an independent - if you're a registered Democrat, you can show up on caucus night and caucus for the Republicans. You just have to change your registration.

CONAN: And you say some people are skipping New Hampshire. Mitt Romney, of course, governor in the neighboring state of Massachusetts, has a home in New Hampshire, is the, you know, you hate to use this word, but prohibitive favorite at the moment in New Hampshire as a substantial lead in any case. And some of the more socially conservative candidates may be skipping New Hampshire to go on to South Carolina, which maybe more fertile ground.

SELZER: Exactly. I think that there are candidates who took a look at Iowa and thought - I'm a good fit to win Iowa. And those are not the same candidates who look at New Hampshire and say I'm a good fit for New Hampshire. I think most obviously it would be Mitt Romney, but also Jon Huntsman takes a look at New Hampshire and thinks that that might be a place for him, and that's where he's put all of his eggs in that basket.

A candidate like Newt Gingrich might think that while he might do well in Iowa, that he could also do well in New Hampshire but it seems like the field sort of divides between the Iowa type of candidate and the New Hampshire type of candidate.

CONAN: And just as you keep those charts from 2004 around, some others might look to 2008 and remind everybody that Barack Obama, heavily favored to win in New Hampshire, until the actual day of the voting. So things can change quickly there as well.


CONAN: So as we look at this final poll, you know, how much do you think it can change over the two days between the end of your polling and the actual caucuses?

SELZER: Well, you know, there's a little bit of the secret world of the pollster. As we're looking at those numbers night by night and we're getting ready to take them down to the newspaper, so they can start writing the stories. And I will admit to you that I took out a pen and sort of made a dotted line of the trajectories as they were happening, kind of, saying, OK, well, how many - with two more days, how could this end up? We have no way of judging because the campaigns really are tying to influence those numbers. You know, if everything were just equal and in a vacuum, there's a chance that Rick Santorum could end up being the winner.

CONAN: We're talking with Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Company. Thanks very much for your time. We'll have to see how things come out Tuesday night.

SELZER: Always my pleasure to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: Ann Selzer, polls for the Des Moines register and Bloomberg. She joins us from the studios at Iowa Public Radio in Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.