The Perils of Polling Paul: Are the Iowa Results Correct?

Can Ron Paul win Iowa?  Shortly after posting my assessment of this PPP Iowa poll yesterday that showed Ron Paul leading in Iowa, Insider Advantage released a second Iowa poll that also showed Paul ahead in Iowa with 24% support.  As in the PPP poll, Romney was second (18%), but Gingrich had dropped to 4th in the IA poll at 13%, behind Rick Perry’s 15.5%.  The two polls immediately fueled debate regarding whether Paul could win in Iowa. Without discounting that possibility, I want to inject a note of caution regarding the mini-Paul media boomlet that we will undoubtedly experience in the next two days.

The major issue is whether these two polls are inflating Paul’s support.  I have noted on previous occasions how difficult it is to develop an accurate sample of likely voters in a caucus state.  Keep in mind that turnout in Iowa will likely be about 100,000 voters – not a huge number by any means in a state with over 2 million registered voters, including more than 600,000 Republicans.  Trying to anticipate who will actually turn out on Jan. 3 is as much art as science.

Iowa caucuses are in theory open to all voters since participants are allowed to change their party registration on the day of the caucus. In fact, however, they tend to be attended almost exclusively by partisans.  Thus, in the 2008 Republican caucus, entrance polls indicate that only 1% of those participating in the Republican caucus were registered Democrats, while 86% were registered Republicans and 13% declared independents.  And this is where things get dicey in projecting Paul’s support.

Both the IA and the PPP polls show that Paul does much better than his opponents among independents and moderate Democratic voters, but the race is much tighter among Republicans; Paul is running about even with Romney among Republicans in the IA survey, and about 4% ahead of both Perry and Gingrich.

So, a key question for pollsters trying to gauge Paul’s support is deciding how many of the former two voting groups to include in a survey sample.  The following table compares the IA and PPP breakdown with the actual figures from 2008.

Voting Group 2008 Actual Proportion (based on entrance polls) IA Survey PPP Survey
Independents 13% 29.9% 17%
Democrats 1% 6.4% 5%
Republicans 86% 63.7% 75%

So both the IA and PPP surveys are oversampling, in comparison to the 2008 proportions, from independents and Democrats – the two groups that are disproportionately likely to support Paul.  Now, this doesn’t mean these projections are wrong.  In fact, it is not unreasonable to think that Democrats and Independents will turn out in higher proportions than in 2008 given that there’s no real race on the Democratic side in Iowa. How much higher, however, is the crucial question. If their sample projections are overestimating independent and Democratic turnout, then both automated polls are likely too optimistic in projecting Paul’s support.

Note that we see the same potential skew when we break down the respondents by ideology.  In the 2008 entrance polls, fully 88% of respondents identified themselves as either strongly or somewhat conservative, but only 11% said they were moderate and 1% liberal.  And yet in the PPP poll we find the following:

Q32 Would you describe yourself as very liberal, somewhat liberal, moderate, somewhat conservative, or very conservative?

Very liberal ……………………………………………… 3%

Somewhat liberal …………………………………….. 6%

Moderate………………………………………………… 19%

Somewhat conservative……………………………. 36%

Very conservative ……………………………………. 36%

In short, only 72% of respondents fall into the conservative range – a full 16% lower than in 2008, while 9% are liberal – 8% higher than in 2008, and 19% are moderate – also 8% higher than four years ago. (The IA topline results do not show the ideological breakdown of their respondents.)

Note that the party and ideological proportions also affect candidate favorability ratings. Paul’s favorability rating is about 8% higher among independents than among Republicans, while Gingrich’s unfavorable margin is much higher among independents and Democrats. Similarly, Paul is viewed much favorably by independents, while Gingrich does better among conservatives.

So, are these surveys wrong?  Not necessarily. In fact, I don’t know how many independents and Democrats will turn out on January 3rd – and no one else does either.  Both PPP and IA are making perhaps very reasonable assumptions that the partisan and ideological proportions will not be the same as in 2008, and that groups favoring Paul will turn out in much higher numbers. They could be correct, but we have no way of knowing. And that is important to keep in mind when you read media coverage of these polls in the next few days. The media narrative will undoubtedly suggest that Paul is surging in Iowa.  It may even be true. In the long run, however, a candidacy that depends on independents and Democrats is not likely to capture the Republican nomination.

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