2016 Democrats, Iowa, State of the Race, Uncategorized

Forecasting Iowa: Which Democrat is Ahead?

January 22, 2016

No.  Hillary is not ahead in Iowa right now.  She’s ahead in the Real Clear Politics average.  The poll considered most reliable had her ahead by 2 points a couple weeks ago.  FiveThirtyEight is showing her ahead in both polls-only and polls-plus predictive measurements.

My thought is Bernie has somewhere between a 55 and 60 percent chance of winning the Hawkeye State right now.  Given the poll average and the algorithmic wizards at 538 disagree, how do I figure?


Don’t worry.  We’ll look at some data evidence in a bit.  This is a good time to re-disclose that I’m not a Hillary Clinton fan.  I’m one of those people who prefers Bernie, even if I don’t even slightly consider myself a socialist, and would generally prefer far less government, not more.

I’m neither a Democrat, nor registered Independent/Uncommitted.  The odds of my voting for either in November are slim.  None of that means my ears are biased though.  There are both good and bad versions of Hillary.

Debating Hillary is a good version.  I thought she at least managed to tie in each of them, and won a couple outright.  It’s a great format for her.  While Clinton struggles to connect in a full speech, particularly in a big hall or arena in front of a large crowd, she’s not bad at all in a town hall format.

Debates are similar.  She gets to give a semi-short answer to a question, usually one that focuses more on policy.  Most of the time, Hillary sounds both strong and informed, and is on offense, not defense.

Rally Hillary is often shrill and sounds like she’s trying too hard.  People in the audience don’t get inspired.  Bernie is running a new ad campaign showing a bunch of excited people at his events, attending them like a calling.  That’s not what Hillary events feel like.

Interview Hillary is sometimes even worse.  She has her moments.  When momentum is in her favor, when she is mostly on offense, Hillary does fine.  She can handle Sunday shows and cable interviews in that environment.  During her fall recovery, she was mostly on pitch.

That’s not the person appearing on TV right now.  The Hillary Clinton on CNN with Wolf Blitzer yesterday was very unappealing.  Bernie Sanders has very high favorability ratings in Iowa.  Very, very high.  Strong Hillary has a strong chance of winning.  Defensive, grouchy Hillary has a strong chance of being grouchy and defensive when the caucus vote comes in.

It leads to semi-ridiculous answers.  Yesterday, she disputed being the establishment candidate and pointed to Bernie spending 25 years in Congress, while she was only a senator for 8 years. Excuse me?

Two terms as first lady and five trillion endorsements from Democratic elected officials apparently don’t count.  She’s also spent the past several days firmly embracing the current president.  This is an insult to the intelligence of any breathing human.  The guy who isn’t even a part of the party he’s hoping nominates him is the outsider, even if he was in Congress with John Quincy Adams.

Running against Ted Cruz, she can get away with saying things like this and still having the vast majority of progressives turn out for her.  With another choice, one who is infinitely more likeable, and more progressive, available, it’s a problem.

If you could assure me she will continue to sound like this through February 1, I would give you 85-90% odds for Bernie.  However, Hillary often rebounds and adjusts right when you’re ready to count her out.  The recently created and announced CNN Democratic Forum in Iowa this upcoming Monday has a chance to help her with this.

I’d love to come up with a “how bad does Hillary sound” metric, but for now, she’s just not where she needs to be to avoid doom.  The doom is making her sound badly enough to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


The poll everyone likes is two weeks old (taken between 1/7-1/10).  Bernie trailed by 2, with plenty undecided.  I think he’s won the past two weeks.  That would put him at least even, probably slightly ahead.  As soon as Ann Selzer has her new poll out, we’ll sub that for my gut, but for now, that poll translates to a Bernie edge.

The CNN/ORC poll from yesterday has Bernie up 9.  For the entire cycle, their surveys have favored Sanders and Trump.  Both benefit from more generous estimates of voter turnout.  If Bernie was trailing in this poll, it would be a problem, leading doesn’t prove anything by itself.

CNN shows him tied with voters who have previously caucused, well ahead with those who haven’t.  That sounds positive for him.  It means he needs good turnout to win, but not Obama levels.  This is important, because the consensus on the ground is Bernie is well prepared and can expect high levels of support from students, but this isn’t Obama 2.0.

If there are three possibilities, regular turnout, 2008 turnout, and somewhere in between, and we think Bernie would win under two of those three scenarios, that would seem to favor him.  General enthusiasm, debate ratings, google searches, any decent measurement would show a reasonably engaged electorate.  That’s good for him, but not enough for them to celebrate yet.

Polling momentum favors him too.  Eight of the last 9 surveys have him further ahead or trailing by less than the last time the same pollster took a look.  The one exception is minimal, many of the other changes are significant.

Normally, you would argue that momentum is already accounted for in the FiveThirtyEight equation.  It is something they consider.  But in this case, it impacts the odds of less committed voters turning out.  A surging candidate is far more likely to get wavering first-time participants to caucus.

Momentum (along with the wrong toned version of Hillary mentioned above) also increases the odds of O’Malley supporters shifting Bernie’s way when forced to due to the 15% requirement in individual caucus locations.

The third group Sanders needs, the truly undecided regular caucusers, are prone to being influenced by momentum.  If they had strong preferences, they wouldn’t be undecided.  New Bernie ads are subtly to overtly pushing the bandwagon message.  All of this makes it easier for someone to vote for their first socialist.

While 43% of Iowans who are planning to participate on the Democratic side are now self-describing as socialist, that’s still not 50%.  He needs a few capitalists to vote for him.  Momentum is his friend.

Much as I buy my points above, this isn’t enough.  It argues Sanders is doing better than the others think, but doesn’t add up to making him a slight favorite.  We need one more piece, one found in the cross-tabs of the CNN survey.

Even if you think they’re overdoing the inclusion of first-time voters, they do an excellent job of asking supporting questions, including the same ones in multiple surveys, and making the results accessible.

What we see is underlying data showing Sanders stronger than the already promising top line numbers.  They asked for second choices.  Not only is Bernie a more common first choice, he’s also a more common second choice.  This means O’Malley voters are in fact more likely to support Bernie.

Either that, or Hillary voters almost always have Bernie as a second choice, while his voters may prefer O’Malley.  Neither of those outcomes is beneficial for Clinton.  It means she has further to go to swing additional voters over to her.  Only the most pro-Hillary polls are showing her safely over 50%, so this matters.

Voters favor Bernie on the economy (58/36) and representing their values (57/38) by a wider margin than his overall support.  Health care is 51/45, very similar to the overall results of 51/43.  In December, Iowans favored Hillary on health care by a 2:1 ratio.  In the days leading up to the poll, she and daughter Chelsea repeatedly criticized his health care plan.

Despite that, Iowans favor him on this and think much more highly of him than previously.  The one area where Hillary still has a huge advantage is foreign policy, where she’s ahead 65/25.  Unsurprisingly, she’s running ads focusing on her readiness to serve as commander-in-chief.

Her other advantage is electability.  By a 60/38 margin, voters think she’s more likely to win in November.  This is another major point the Clinton campaign is focusing on.  The problem is this is not currently showing as a leading reason for choosing a candidate.

In the December CNN poll, she led 77/18 on electability, but was only ahead 54/36 in overall support.  This indicates a decent chunk of voters who are willing to vote for Bernie even if they think Hillary is more electable.

Should Hillary continue to stumble in interviews, should the email issue stick around for the next week, the electability margin would shrink further.  It’s already at a point where he can win.  If it’s 55/45 on caucus day, she’ll lose for sure.

If you knew one Democratic candidate was favored over the other by a 67/30 margin on doing the most to help the middle class, you’d think that candidate had a pretty good chance, right?  That’s where they stand right now.  It’s important to note the question asks about effectiveness not intentions.

Hillary is currently claiming Bernie means well, but can’t deliver.  Attacking his intentions won’t work as his favorability numbers are sky high.  His limited record of congressional accomplishment leaves him open to this line of criticism.  But it’s not working yet.

Finally, when asked about the most important issue, 46% of likely Dem voters surveyed said the economy, 20% said health care.  Only 6% chose foreign policy, another 6% terrorism.  For Hillary to win, these numbers need to get a bit closer.  A new terrorist attack could happen at any time, but without it, he’s got an edge.

So far in the campaign, these underlying numbers have done a better job of looking a week or three down the road than the top line preference numbers.  Since Bernie is already fairly close on the top line numbers, at least if you read them the way I am, at a minimum, the extra data breaks the tie.

Bernie will need to hang on for dear life over the next 10 days.  Even if the caucus was today, I only think he’d win, I’m not sure of it.  But, in my calculated opinion, he does hold a small edge right now.







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