J Ann Selzer1/4/2017
J Ann Selzer is a prophet of trends in politics and business. She has operated The Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll since 1987 and has worked with Bloomberg News and Bloomberg.com for seven years. Her reputation for divining the future has brought her bonafide status as a Washington insider and as America’s top pollster. We asked her recently to lunch in order to discuss the art and science of polling and recent election results that surprised many people who did not pay close attention to her.
A serious foodie, Selzer chose Marlene’s at Sevastopol Station, her favorite new place.
“I love serving shooters, and their crab bisque makes the best.”
However, the restaurant recently stopped serving lunch, at least until warm weather returns. So we walked across the street to B&B Grocery, Meat & Deli. Selzer said she goes there for brisket, which she asks co-owner John Brooks to cube for her. Brooks says he does that but lectures Selzer that it is “just wrong to cube brisket.” Selzer says it makes the best chili. Selzer became famous for thinking outside of boxes, so I will be using cubed brisket the next time I make chili.
How does one get into polling?
“Dream it as a child,” she recalled. “Seriously, I was 5 years old when I conducted my first poll of public opinion. At the time, my mother called me by a nickname I couldn’t stand. I won’t even say it now. So I went around the neighborhood knocking on doors of my mother’s friends. I asked them if they thought the nickname didn’t suggest a witch. The consensus agreed with my leading question, so I took the results home, and Mom quit calling me that. Right then I realized that public opinion research delivered the power to change things.”
Selzer, though, was planning to follow her father into medicine until she realized that much of medical science was rote and she wanted something more creative.
“That is how I became an Iowan. I found that the University of Iowa had a graduate program in communications theory and research. I came from Topeka and got a Ph.D. there,” she said.
Selzer spent a year in England and another working for Sen. Barbara Mikulski before settling in Iowa. She was working at The Des Moines Register in 1988 when she questioned a Register poll that predicted George H.W. Bush beating Bob Dole in the Iowa caucus. She objected to a method of only contacting previous voters. She isolated new voters and predicted Dole would win, which he did, with Bush finishing third. Her biggest breakthrough was in 2008 when she predicted Barack Obama would beat Hillary Clinton in the caucuses and that 60 percent of Obama voters would be first timers.
“(Clinton campaign manager) Mark Penn went very public branding me a fool and calling my poll wrong. It was huge. If he had not criticized me personally, I would not have become a national name. That led directly to my role with Bloomberg. They were severing their ties with The Los Angeles Times, and they were looking for something new. I talked to Washington Bureau of Bloomberg News and became a frequent guest on ‘With All Due Respect.’ They wrote the game-changing book on Obama’s win,” she explained.
Selzer would come under similar criticism during the 2014 midterms when she predicted that Joni Ernst would upset Bruce Braley.
Selzer and Bloomberg focused this year on Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, so-called “toss-up states.” When they determined that Trump might likely carry them all, they realized the previously unthinkable thought that Wisconsin and Michigan were in play.
“I had been paying close attention to Trump for a long time. His persona fit what my data suggested was the mood of the electorate — disengaged from the status quo and resentful of the Democrats’ ability to deliver to the common voter,” she explained.
So how did so many prognosticators get it wrong?
“They weren’t all that wrong,” she said. “Many were measuring the popular vote, and Clinton did win that. But too many were looking at past results. You need to live in the moment. Past results are the best indicator of future results but only until there is change. Internet polls rely heavily on past results.
“This year was a lot like 2008. (Clinton’s Iowa campaign manager) Jerry Crawford did not see Obama coming because 60 percent of his voters were first-timers. Similar things happened this year. Obama supporters did not show up for Hillary,” Selzer explained.
What does she think of the current landscape?
“Right this moment, the Democrats in Iowa have no statewide voice of the party. (Attorney General) Tom Miller is the closest thing, and he is happy where he is. He’s not jumping forward. Nationally, I find it interesting how captivated everyone is by Trump’s cabinet appointments. It’s unprecedented interest, because no one really knows what his issues are. The election was all about personality. Ivanka (Trump) has a different agenda than what the campaign was about, too.
“One client wanted to do a poll between the election and the inauguration. I said that it was too soon. Too much is just shaking out. Midterms will be a huge referendum on Trump. I was a big fan of ‘MASH.’ I particularly loved an episode in which Hawkeye leads a rebellion. Their campaign slogan was, ‘We want something else.’ Sometimes the bigger risk is to keep doing the same thing. That was the mood of the electorate this year,” she said.
Though she does not speak Vietnamese, Selzer translated a hymn into that language for her choral group. Is it hard to keep busy between elections?
“What most people don’t realize is that most of my work is with business. They need good information as badly as politicians do. One of my favorite clients is the head of Fareway. When I showed him they were making false assumptions about what demographic was the main buyer of one product, he told me, ‘I am a big fan of the truth.’ You can waste a lot of time and money chasing mistakes,” she explained. ♦