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2014 Elections & Key Races Across Iowa

posted on June 20, 2014

Campaign snapshots. Early polls measuring candidates' strength with Iowa voters. An academic political insight on this edition of Iowa Press. 

Borg: Much like runners in a 10K race, political candidates rely on polls for telling them how they're doing. Perhaps a political campaign might better compare to a marathon, but the metaphor still holds true, polls tell candidates what about them and their message is resonating with voters and how voters are comparing them to the opposition. And just as a runner is receiving what is called split times at mile markers along the way for deciding how to spend or save energy, polls do the same for candidates in modifying campaign strategies. And it is also the information that fascinates journalists and political science and communications specialists such as Dianne Bystrom, who directs Iowa State University's Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics. UNI Political Scientist Chris Larimer. And Loras College Politics Professor Christopher Budzisz. Welcome to Iowa Press.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Borg: Nice to have you here. And across the Iowa Press table, Political Reporter James Lynch who writes for the Gazette published in Cedar Rapids and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Mr. Budzisz, let's begin with you. Loras College has started conducting a poll. I'm sure you've been watching what has happened in the Eric Cantor race and all the discussion about the accuracy of polls. I think a poll that he had commissioned in that race in his Virginia congressional district maybe had a margin of error of 42%. Can you tell us, as a pollster, what do you worry about in making sure the poll is accurate?

Budzisz: I think first off the consideration is who you're asking. So, in other words, the sampling. And in that Virginia race it is made a little more complicated by the nature of the way Virginia selects candidates. So, that was a situation where it was very hard for that pollster, I think, to get an approximation of what the Election Day turnout would actually look like, who would actually show up. So, what we consider is who we think is a likely voter and we base that upon historical averages, some trend data that we see and we try to approximate that. And I will say as someone who is involved in polling that is probably the thing that keeps me up at night is, alright, are we accurately gauging who we think is the kind of likely voter. And I'm glad to say that for the inaugural Loras College polls I think we did a pretty good job at all of that. So, but it is something that you must consider when you're polling is who you are asking.

Henderson: Mr. Larimer, the other part of this is, do you call people on their landline? Do you call them on their cell phone? Some young people don't even answer their cell phone, they only answer a text. How are political scientists and those who conduct polls responding to the new reality of how people communicate?

Larimer: Well, I think it's a big challenge because you're talking about different sets of voters with different preferences. What Chris was talking about with likely voters I think is absolutely critical. If you're talking about a likely voter for a mid-term election versus a likely voter for a presidential election depending on how you define that, if they voted in the previous gubernatorial election but maybe not the presidential election or vice versa, I think that makes a big difference in the results. And so I think for pollsters, I'm sure Chris has been doing this, the challenge is trying to find those voters that are likely for each type of an election before you call them a likely voter.

Henderson: And Ms. Bystrom, finally to you, plethora of polls, all of these polls that are out there, they sometimes show people are undecided. Are those people waiting to jump on the bandwagon to see who may be the winner and they want to say they voted for the winner? What do we make of so many polls and are they influencing the outcome of the race because they're so prolific?

Bystrom: Well, there has been quite a bit of research that shows that there is somewhat of a bandwagon effect and people want to vote for the winner. On the other hand, just like you're noting, a lot of people say they're undecided when they aren't in fact probably undecided. So, again, that's another challenge for pollsters because when the person answers the phone and gets a poll they may not want to tell the person conducting the poll that they are decided and they have made a choice. And so I think that is why you see such a big group of undecideds. But there's pretty much long line of literature in the political communication and political science field that does show that polling can have an impact. But usually I think it is only four points, I mean it's not a lot, three or four points, it's not huge but there could be a bandwagon effect.

Henderson: Finally, you know, in Iowa's U.S. Senate race among five republicans, polls showed that Ms. Ernst was at the head of the pack at the very end but she wound up winning by 56% of the vote, which was not really reflected in any of the pre-primary polls. Mr. Budzisz, how do you explain that?

Budzisz: I think that is one of those clear instances where you're also dealing there with a primary electorate, who they're all republicans and they're all, they know that they're going to kind of, there's an extra incentive there for them to join and get behind a candidate, especially when it was seen that Ernst would be viable and Ernst would be kind of a clear winner. So, I think what you saw in those snapshot polls that we conducted and others conducted, you saw Ernst take off and then three or four weeks before the actual primary, I think there you see a coalescing of republicans because that's really all you're talking about is a primary electorate in that instance.

Borg: We joked about margin of error just a moment ago. But I'm curious, what is a margin of error? What goes into margin of error?

Budzisz: What goes into the margin of error is essentially the size of the sample you're taking from the universe that you're trying to explain. So, if you've got a million voters potentially and you're pulling out 600 of those people, statistically, and I'll spare you the formulas and the rest of it, but you can have at a 95% confidence interval that 95 out of 100 times that plus or minus that three percent or four percent, that that number will be reflected. So, that is -- really what it is the higher the margin of error the more suspect you should be of the polls. The lower the margin of error in general you're looking at a poll that is what we would consider more robust.

Borg: Jim?

Lynch: This week the Quinnipiac University released a couple of polls showing Governor Branstad is leading by about nine percentage points and Bruce Braley has a 44 to 40% lead in the Senate race. But one of the things that struck me is the trendline in both of those races is pretty flat when you go back to the polling done last year, earlier this year and now in June. What is happening there that nobody is making any headway, none of those candidates seems to be making any headway? Is it just too early? Is it nobody is paying any attention at this point? Let's start with you, Mr. Budzisz, when you see a flat trendline what is happening?

Budzisz: Well, one of the things, as you mentioned, was some of these race are not fully developed yet. So, sometimes it's that the bright lines that will be in stark contrast that will be made during a campaign, the stuff of campaigns to be sure, hasn't occurred yet. So, that is one of the things. The other is they haven't necessarily spent all of the money, the outside money hasn't come in to move the race or move the meter, so to speak. So, I think that is one thing that contributes to it.

Lynch: That's a good point. Senator Hatch is struggling to raise money in his gubernatorial race. He reportedly had trouble finding a running mate and the polls show that two-thirds of the people don't have enough information to make an opinion about him. Professor Bystrom, why isn't Governor Branstad running away with this race?

Bystrom: Well, I think the other thing that you're seeing in the polling about Governor Branstad, he has very high approval ratings but there's also a significant number of people who think that he has been in office for too long. So, I think that is what is playing against him. I mean, you find the same polls saying that, yes, I like Governor Branstad but is it time for a change? So, you see that as well. So, I think that is bringing his numbers down a little bit. But still he is ahead and he's ahead by a good margin.

Borg: Mr. Budzisz?

Budzisz: Yeah, I would just say that our most recent Loras College polls, which was done right after the primary, does show a significant lead for the Governor. But, as Dianne mentioned, there are some concerns there and there's also the fact that if you think about it, he is known by virtually everyone in this state. So, movement is maybe a little more difficult sometimes when you are so well known. So, that's just something else to consider.

Lynch: Is it a problem that he's under 50%?

Larimer: I don't think so. I think, you know, the research on governors and elections and re-elections suggest that it comes down to a few things as far as federal unemployment rate, state unemployment rate and then the difference between the two, kind of a relative unemployment rate. In the case of Iowa, you know, we've had an unemployment rate that is about two percentage points lower than the federal rate. Governor Branstad's approval ratings there's been about 20 to 24 polls I think since he was re-elected have been trending upward, getting closer to 50%, 55%. All of that bodes well for him. So, I don't think, even though it's sort of a static lead or there hasn't been a lot of change, about nine percentage points as you said, the research would suggest he is in a very strong position. Most people know who you are, knows who he is and all the economic factors are going in his favor.

Borg: Mr. Budzisz, in your polling, much has been said about women candidates and the chances in this election, any indication that women are selecting by gender?

Budzisz: You know, I started talking about who we poll and the other thing is kind of what we ask. So, in the polls that we have conducted so far we haven't really dug down too deeply into some of those issue based things that might show this difference between men and women. In our most recent polling we didn't see any stark difference, as has been reported in some others. What we tended to see was what you would traditionally see with men and women. But we didn't go down deeper yet and ask some of those questions.

Borg: Ms. Bystrom, this is your area of expertise. Is this the year of the woman?

Bystrom: Well, number one, I do think that there's a good chance, the best chance ever since I've been here. I've been here 18 years and I think this is the best chance for Iowa to elect a woman to Congress, primarily because in the past women seeking election to Congress have run as challengers. And whether you're a male or a female candidate, challengers win about 15% of the time, incumbents win over 90% of the time. So, you need to look for those open seat races where both have, you know, in most cases a 50% change to win. So, we have, out of the three races that women are running in for Congress, we're going to have two open seat races. So, I think it's the best chance I've ever seen since I've been here. We're one of four states never have sent a woman to Congress and so I think it's our best chance. As far as the polling, and referring to that Quinnipiac poll, I was really surprised when the lead said that this was an unusual gender result because it's not unusual at all. And I think, you know, the notion that women are going to vote for a woman really doesn't hold true. There are some women that will. I think independent women voters can be swayed by either case. But, what you saw in the Quinnipiac poll is that Bruce Braley has an 11 point gender gap between his female voters and male voters. That is very good for Bruce Braley. And the reason you measure the gender gap by women and men for one candidate, not women for two candidates, and the reason you do that is that there's more women in this country, more are registered to vote and more vote. And so if you have an 11 point gender gap among women it's not offset by the same gender gap that you might have on the male side. The good news for Joni Ernst is that hers is a fairly narrow gender gap. You would see a male candidate maybe with having more male support and less female support, so she has narrowed that. So, I do think her gender is influencing that. But what the gender gap is, is that women tend to vote democratic, men tend to vote republican and that is what Quinnipiac showed.

Henderson: Mr. Larimer, at this time in the 2006 cycle, we all sort of knew that the Iraq War was a huge issue. At this time in 2010 it was sort of gearing up to be all about the Affordable Care Act, which republicans refer to as Obamacare. Now we're in the midst of a mid-term election. Can you discern what will be sort of the big deciding issue this year?

Larimer: Well, I think the polls so far are showing that it's still the economy, it's still jobs, it's still the deficit, so sort of the traditional factors that you would expect. I think on foreign affairs that's certainly getting more press, whether it is Iraq, Libya, Syria and other issues. And I think the overall effect of all that is dragging down the approval ratings of President Obama, which is not necessarily going to impact the gubernatorial race in Iowa but if you think about the Senatorial race in Iowa most of the research will tell you that when voters go to the polls to vote for a U.S. Senate candidate, one of the factors they look at is the approval rating of the President and does the Senate candidate share a party affiliation with the President? In this case, that does not bode well for Congressman Braley because he shares party affiliation, obviously, with President Obama.

Henderson: Ms. Bystrom, do you have something to add? You kept shaking your head as he was giving that analysis.

Bystrom: No, I was just agreeing with Chris. I do think that mid-term elections are just a whole different thing. I mean, the gubernatorial race will have, I think, a bit of an effect here on who votes. Another thing I think I actually saw in a poll is that Iowans tend to like split representation in the U.S. Senate so that's something maybe good for Braley. But I do think that's a very interesting race and I do think that the polling on that race shows good news for both candidates, for Braley and for Joni Ernst.

Budzisz: Yeah, to me one of the lingering things is how much, we've mentioned some of the previous elections, how much this is going to look like 2010. And I noticed some republicans are under the impression that it's going to be kind of a wave election for them and a redo of 2010 with the last time we had a gubernatorial election and a senate election at the same time. I don't quite see it that way because some of the things are missing. We don't have, for instance, the same-sex marriage issue and the judicial retention elections that you saw in 2010. But as Chris rightly mentioned this question of President Obama's approval rating, the direction of the country, all of those things I think kind of raise the spirits of republicans, especially given that the Senate chamber is at play, which is also an explanation why we're going to have so much money in this race and the rest. So I think as Chris has mentioned and Dianne has mentioned, this is one of those things, put three political scientists on a panel and we'll often times shake our heads yes. We're not three different politicians.

Lynch: Well, talking about federal races, Professor Larimer, you recently blogged about congressional approval rating of 7% and we seem to have kind of a long tradition of holding Congress in low regard, or at least members of Congress in low regard. But you raised some concerns about the institution of Congress. Explain what your concern is there when you look at this number.

Larimer: Yeah, so Gallup released a poll earlier this week showing the confidence in the institution of Congress, that is an institution in American society, as Gallup words the question, is down to 7% as far as the number of people that say quite a lot or a great deal of confidence in Congress. And that is historically low, it has never been below 10%. And when you compare that to the traditional approve/disapprove question, generally that other question about confidence in the institution of Congress gets much higher marks. It's usually, you know, 10%, 20% if not 30% because when people think about the institution of Congress they think about it in terms of democratic ideals, that this is part of our government, this is how it works, even if we don't like it we need it there. So, the fact that that's down to 7% suggests that Americans have really just sort of given up on Congress, that they don't expect anything out of Congress, that they don't expect them to get anything done, that people are ready to maybe move on with some of even their own members of Congress. We've seen that that's up to about 22% according to a recent Gallup poll that people say that 22% of their own members or 22% of American say that their own members do not deserve re-election. So, I think for incumbents running this year, this could potentially be a very tough year.

Borg: And do you agree, Dianne Bystrom?

Bystrom: Well, it could be. I mean, those are the types of things that we look for and we call them change elections, just things kind of going on with the electorate that might change the outcome in a normal year.

Borg: Would that, if it's a tough year for incumbents, then necessarily running and saying, I'm against the establishment, is going to have an easier time?

Bystrom: Well, a lot of times it's what we see in the past and the numbers have not been this low. But Congress hasn't had high approval ratings for a long time. They're historically low but people always say this, that they want to elect someone knew, but still incumbents win again over 90% of the time usually. And so, yeah, I don't think we're going to see -- I think there's going to be some races, there already have been races, you've got Cantor out, I mean you've got some races where you're not going to have the incumbent running because people are sick of it. But, I don't think overall, I think overall incumbents will still have a high percentage.

Larimer: And one of the things that drives down approval ratings, as Dianne said, you know, approval ratings have been going down for a long time. I don't think they have been over 30% for four or five years, is this perception that members of Congress are out of touch with the interests of ordinary Americans and now we've seen this enormous influx of money following the Citizens United ruling and the last couple of election cycles. So, I think we're going to continue to see those numbers incredibly low in the single digits for the next couple of election cycles.

Lynch: Did Congress bring this on themselves? I mean, the congressional gridlock, does that sort of feed into that low approval rating that people look at it, as you said, they've kind of given up on Congress?

Larimer: It does. You know, one of the frustrations people have with Congress is that it's slow and that it's deliberate. It's designed to be that way but that is one of the things that people are really frustrated with.

Henderson: Let's talk about brand loyalty, if you will, or team loyalty. In Iowa there are about 600,000 registered republicans, about 600,000 registered democrats, but 700,000 people who are registered to vote in this state don't want to identify with either party. Ms. Bystrom, can you explain what is happening to brand loyalty?

Bystrom: Well, I think what is happening is a couple of things, is that people are choosing, they like to perceive themselves as independent. National figures will show that only about 15% of those people who say they're independent are actually independent and by independent I mean swing voters and the rest of them actually lean democratic or lean republican. The trouble that is for the candidates is that they know how to market their brand with identified democrats and identified republicans but for that huge swath in the middle who are independents it's a little bit tricky how to market to that group of voters. But most of them, I think, obviously tend to vote democratic, tend to vote republican with a just small percentage that are really independent voters.

Henderson: Well, it takes winning independents to win in Iowa, Mr. Larimer. What do you see as key for the marquee races here, for Governor Branstad and for this U.S. Senate race? What do you see as they key issues that will make those swing voters swing one way or the other?

Larimer: Well, I don't think it's anything different than what is going on with the rest of the country, that is it's going to be the economy, jobs and the deficit. I think the challenge for, if you look at the Senate race, is going to be for Congressman Braley to distance himself from President Obama because the approval rating of Obama among independents is going down, it is considerably less than it is for democrats. And if you assume that independents nationally are somewhat similar to the no party folks in Iowa, then I think his challenge is to sort of separate himself from President Obama. So, I think the no party element in Iowa is always interesting because it's always greater than a third of registered voters. But I think for a statewide race in Iowa, I don’t' think you can ignore sort of the vote share argument in  Iowa, and that is that there are, you know, five, six, maybe seven counties in Iowa where you're going to see most of the votes coming from. And so I think Congressman Braley can focus on the no party voters or he could focus on six or seven counties where if he really racks up big wins --

Henderson: Huge margins.

Larimer: Right. He's going to -- there are a number of counties that simply don't matter for the election.

Borg: Mr. Budzisz, let me take this into the Governor's race and branding. Governor Branstad I think would, you might often hear him branding his opponent, Senator, State Senator Hatch, as a liberal. On this program last week, Jack Hatch stated, I'm a Des Moines liberal. Analyze that for me.

Budzisz: Well, I guess it's one of those brand things again, own it if everybody believes it or the rest -- I don't think it's going to cause him any trouble as it is. I mean, he has the issues with name recognition and the rest. I don't know if I'd chalk it up to what he did with his mustache too, if it's just for effect. But that is one of those things where I fully anticipate Governor Branstad to continue to make those labels. And honestly throwing those labels out there is something that we see campaigns do all the time. I think one would be excused if you were just not from Iowa, showed up here, listened to some ads and think that Congressman Braley is running against the Koch Brothers and that State Senator Ernst is running against somebody named Washington. I mean, I do think that that's all part of this branding or these labels that are getting transmitted.

Henderson: Ms. Bystrom, I'm struck by the advertisement that Professor Budzisz just referenced in that the candidate, Jack Hatch, shaved off his mustache. In your view, was that an effective way to introduce yourself to Iowans who have no idea who you are or what you stand for?

Bystrom: There's parts of that ad that I like. It's got kind of a homey, down home quality to it and I think it's got, it's kind of clever at the end with shaving off the mustache, plus I actually think he looks better without his mustache so I think that's good. But, you know, I think you've got kind of two ads going now, primarily is his introduction ad and that is what he has to do, he has to introduce himself to the state of Iowa, I'm not really sure it was the most effective one I've seen ever. I mean, I've studied ads since 1990 and I wouldn't rate it in the top group. I don't think it's a bad ad and it may play pretty well. I had kind of a, I guess kind of a neutral opinion about it. I think Governor Branstad's ad, on the other hand, whether it's only music and no talking and flash videos, I think it's very dynamic but, of course, he's not trying to introduce himself so much, he's trying to tell people what he has accomplished and what there is left to do.

Henderson: Well, if I could ask the two gentlemen who do not have a mustache and who live in maybe places of Iowa where no one has heard of Jack Hatch before, was that an effective ad, Professor Larimer?

Larimer: You know, I think it's too early to tell. I think back to the comment that Senator Hatch referred to himself as a Des Moines liberal, I think that is trouble for him actually and the fact that he picked Monica Vernon as a running mate could also be a potential problem. I mean, if that is a signal that Linn County is in play, I think that's problematic for November right now. I think if he's concerned about losing Linn County, losing voters in the Cedar Rapids area, that's a problem for November. If he's trying to appeal to voters in Polk County because he wants to win Polk County I think that's going to be an enormous challenge because Branstad won Polk County, he won Scott County in 2010. So, I think if those two counties, if he's looking at those two counties I think that's suggestive of a pretty uphill battle going for November.

Henderson: Mr. Budzisz, Terry Branstad --

Borg: You'd like to comment on that, go ahead.

Budzisz: Well, I was just going to say, the dynamics of the race are kind of, he's behind it anyway so I think that, I agree with you, Chris, that it could very well be trouble but there's also these fundamentals that he probably also has that we just, we talked about before, that he's working against.

Larimer: Yeah, I wonder about those no party voters hearing the word liberal, what that sort of activates in their minds.

Borg: Kay?

Henderson: I think Jim --

Lynch: Just briefly talking about getting your message out there, the media has splintered, there's so many ways to enjoy media and enjoy media without seeing political ads. I'm wondering how do campaigns and candidates get their message out? I'll start with you Professor Bystrom. How do they reach people in this fractured media? And how do they have to go after various generations of folks?

Bystrom: Well, of course, the Obama campaign was the experts on that. I mean, they have really changed the way that political messaging has happened over the last two election cycles and it was so sophisticate din 2012 with that campaign doing this really big data analysis every night and running that data. And so, you know, the Obama campaign, if you look at I think polling too from democrats now on a national level and republicans, is that the democrats are using these new methodologies that are trying to figure out who is likely to vote for their candidate and then trying to target those voters. That's certainly what they tried to do, the Obama side, in the last two campaigns and I don't know if it ever can get that sophisticated down to the state and local level. But they were through collecting information from Twitter and Facebook and all sorts of things. They actually can figure out what is the best way to reach this voter. And so they did a lot with text messaging, Facebook, Twitter, for young people.

Budzisz: Microtargeting, advanced analytics, the kind of digging down deep into what might just seem to be a cacophony of voices is an effective way and can be costly to get up and going but at the national level, anyway, it has been pretty effective. I would say that when you talk about, when we've talked about the effectiveness of ads, what you mentioned, this trend makes it more difficult I think as a commentator to say for sure, did this ad work or not, if we're talking about TV ads because the amount of television viewers, especially by younger generations, to sit through campaign commercials, that's not the only way they're getting it, as Dianne mentioned. So, sometimes when we talk about TV ads the new media market makes it very difficult.

Borg: We're finished with this market today. We're out of time. Thanks so much for your insights. And we'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press, the usual times, 7:30 Friday night and noon on Sunday. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today. 


Tags: campaign 2014 Chris Larimer Christopher Budzisz Dianne Bystrom elections government Iowa news politics