The Des Moines Poll: The Two Most Important Things to Know

Here are two most important aspects of the Des Moines Register’s poll to ponder with your morning coffee and aspirin: the composition of the respondent pool and when Santorum’s surge began.

First, note that Santorum’s surge doesn’t begin until midway through the Des Moines Tuesday-Friday polling cycle.  That is, his move from 10%  at the start of the survey on Tuesday to 22% among those surveyed in the last two days coincides with the release of the highly publicized CNN poll, which came out on Wednesday and is the first to show Santorum moving out of single digits.  Did the CNN poll provide a reason for social conservatives to begin coalescing behind Santorum?  It sure looks that way.  If so, it’s an interesting example of how polling can affect perceptions of viability, which in turn can drive results. Nothing breeds success like success.  I don’t remember a candidate going from 10% to 22% in a four-day period.  (Keep in mind that because of the smaller sample size the two-day subsample results have a larger margin of error of 5.6%) Of course, this is a reminder of just how fluid the situation remains in Iowa.  And it raises the question – is there enough time for candidates to retrain their guns and begin targeting Santorum?  Or did he peak too late for anyone to do anything about it? Note that Santorum is the second choice of 15% of those surveyed, tied for the lead with Perry in this category.   Will Perry supporters, reacting to this poll, begin to defect to Santorum?

Second, note the demographics of those who were polled. The composition of the voting pool come Tuesday is critical for determining just how strong Santorum’s surge will be.  Note that the sample was adjusted for gender and age, but not for partisan affiliation. J. Anne Selzer, who oversaw the Des Moines poll, posed several fascinating alternative outcomes based on different turnout scenarios. In yesterday’s poll evangelicals constitute only about 34% of respondents – far lower than the 60% who showed up in 2008, based on entrance polls. Remember, the big issue in Iowa in 2008 was immigration – today it is the economy.  If yesterday’s poll is adjusted to match the turnout of evangelicals from four years ago, however, Santorum wins on Tuesday in a walk, 25% to 20% for Romney, with Paul a distant third at 16%.

Similarly, fewer seniors indicated they would vote Tuesday (20%) than in 2008 (27%).  Let’s assume, however, that they do turn out in proportions closer to the 2008 numbers – that would boost Romney to victory, with 26% to Santorum’s 19%.  Finally, Selzer detected an increase in self-identified independents in the last two days of polling; although the overall  number of independents surveyed is 22%, in the last two days it increased to 26%.  If the number of independents reaches 30% of the voting pool, she calculates that Romney would win, but that Paul would move into second.

So what are the chances these numbers will change between today and Tuesday?  A full 40% of those polled said they could be persuaded to vote for someone else. Eleven percent say there is “a good chance” something could be said at the caucus event to make them switch their vote.  If so, it’s not likely they will switch to Gingrich – he is cited by 23% as the least liked candidate. A month ago, he was only at 9% in this category. So much for trying to stay positive in the face of a barrage of negative advertising.  My guess is he is going to go negative, and in a big way, beginning today.

There will be at least one more poll, by PPP, in the field today and tomorrow.  Meanwhile, Paul – perhaps sensing that his momentum has stalled – went home for New Year’s, but will return tomorrow.  The rest of the candidates are slogging it out.  This is where the much hyped “organizational” advantages of Paul and Romney are supposed to come into play.  If conservatives flock to Santorum, however, it’s possible he could benefit from their built-in organizational base centered in the church-based social network.

Rick Santorum. Who would have thunk it a month ago? Not me!

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