DES MOINES -- The 2016 Iowa caucuses were more polled, more frequently, than any previous contest. Starting in November, there were multiple weekly looks at the Iowa electorate, many of them earning bright red chyrons on cable news.
But there was only one Des Moines Register-Bloomberg Politics poll -- and only one Ann Selzer. The maestro of the Iowa poll came into Monday night as the subject of a glowing FiveThirtyEight profile ("Ann Selzer is the best pollster in politics"), a glowing Politico profile ("Ann Selzer's secret sauce") and a guest appearance on Showtime's real-time documentary "The Circus" in which synergistic hosts Mark Halperin and John Heilemann came to her office to pay tribute.
"Having had this success ...," started Halperin.
"There's this mystique of infallibility -- and I don't like it," interrupted Selzer.
"Does that make you feel more pressure?" asked Halperin.
"Yes!" said Selzer."I expect a surprise."
She was on to something. The Saturday release of her poll -- part of a Bloomberg party and livestream -- was a genuine event, attended by journalists who scrambled to rewrite the narrative of 2016. The poll, unfortunately, did not predict the winner of the caucuses. The final DMR-BP poll saw a Republican contest led by Donald Trump, with 28 percent of the vote, outside the margin of error. It pegged Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) at 23 percent, a severe slide from his December peak, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) at just 15 percent, and sliding.
What happened? When asked, Selzer answered right away, with something that sounded like relief.
"In all the press I did in the last two days—and it was a LOT — I talked about the fluidity," she wrote in an email. "Up to the last moment — including inside the caucus room — campaigns and supporters are working for change! Surprise! Big evangelical turnout — no doubt the biggest."
What the poll could not pick up was the success of the better-organized candidates in winning over the absolute latest deciders, the people who finally weighed in after the poll's Saturday release. No pollster truly nailed that. Emerson Polling, a newer outfit less used to being called a "gold standard," got kudos for finding a much tighter Republican race and Rubio moving above 20 percent. But it also saw a breakout lead for Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) where Selzer saw a statistical tie.
"Trump was disliked by vast majority of caucus-goers who didn’t support him," Selzer said. "Bernie’s extraordinary strength was with first-timers, who showed up in above-projected numbers. I talked about the consequences of all this. In the end, a little bit of democracy happened last night, and it was thrilling to anyone who is fascinated by politics."
Would Selzer miss the fanfare, the people basing entire analyses of Iowa on what her numbers found? No, no, no. "If I’m demoted to 'silver standard,' I’m fine with that," she said. "I was never all that comfortable with the hype."