The final poll conducted by the Des Moines Register newspaper before the Iowa Caucuses on Thursday is out and Barack Obama has widened his lead over Hillary Clinton while Mike Huckabee continues to outpace Mitt Romney on the Republican side:
Obama was the choice of 32 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers, up from 28 percent in the Register’s last poll in late November, while Clinton, a New York senator, held steady at 25 percent and Edwards, a former North Carolina senator, was virtually unchanged at 24 percent.
The poll reflects continued fluidity in the race even as the end of the yearlong campaign nears. Roughly a third of likely caucusgoers say they could be persuaded to choose someone else before Thursday evening. Six percent were undecided or uncommitted.
The poll also reveals a widening gap between the three-way contest for the lead and the remaining candidates. No other Democrat received support from more than 6 percent of likely caucusgoers.
The findings mark the largest lead of any of the Democratic candidates in the Register’s poll all year, underscoring what has been a hard-fought battle among the three well-organized Iowa frontrunners.
Huckabee enjoys a 6 point lead on Romney, 32-26% with John McCain a distant third at 13% and Fred Thompson in fourth with 9%.
A couple of thoughts on this poll that will probably be echoed by some of the campaigns as they try to spin the results to their advantage.
First, I find it striking that observers on the ground in the last 72 hours who have been reporting surges for Hillary and Romney and the consequent drop of Huckabee and Obama are either seeing things or the poll itself is just not accurate. The reason for the latter could be due to the novel experiment of polling during the biggest holiday season of the year.
Polling is a science where methodology is all. What kind of sample? Was it “random” enough? Was it a big enough sample? How do you determine a probable caucus goer? Couple that with the astonishing information that up to a third of those who say they will attend the caucuses could change their mind between now and caucus night and I believe it more than likely that the holidays have been a distraction to the process. It could very well be that a sizable percentage of people will walk into their caucus on Thursday night not knowing who they will support.
I think as an indicator of a general trend, the poll is accurate. Romney and Huckabee are probably pulling away from the rest of the field while Obama is putting a little distance between himself and Hillary/Edwards. But beyond that I don’t know how accurate it is even as a snapshot.
The poll was taken over 4 days – December 27-30 – with 800 “likely” Caucus goers being polled. If you follow the first link to the story on the Democrats and go to the bottom, you’ll find a chart showing how the polling percentages broke down over the 4 days. What you see is a remarkable surge by Obama over those 4 days as late deciders are evidently flocking to his banner while Hillary’s numbers tank over the same period. Obama starts at 29% and ends up at 34% while Hillary starts at 27% and drops to 23%. John Edwards also saw his numbers climb dramatically over the 4 days from 23% to 26%.
This is exactly the opposite of what has been reported on the ground over the last 3 days by many reporters who saw Clinton on the upswing with Edwards peaking and Obama dropping.
So much for our vaunted political press.
For the GOP, Iowa has apparently become a two man race between Romney and Huckabee. Is Huckabee really up by 6 points? Sometimes you can tell more from the candidate’s behavior than you can published polls. They are reacting to internal polling which measures support a little differently than public polls. And the way Huckabee and Romney have been acting would seem to suggest that it is Romney on the rise with Huckabee trying to stop a slide.
For Fredheads, the only good news is that Thompson is the only GOP candidate whose support rose during the entire polling period. But 10% won’t cut it by any means and if that’s the best the candidate can do, I would expect him to drop out on Friday morning.
If polls are considered snapshots of a moment in time, there’s plenty of mud on these photos making it difficult to read. We may as well resign ourselves to the idea that we’re just going to have to wait until late Thursday night to find out the winners and losers.
UPDATE: LET THE SPIN BEGIN
TNR is puzzled by the same things I am:
This totally shatters the CW of the political crowd here in Des Moines, which had been convinced that Edwards was on fire and really might win, and that Huck was totally imploding. (Although the polling stopped yesterday, before today’s Huck presser fiasco.) It also reaffirms my instinct that Fred Thompson isn’t booking a flight to New Hampshire.
Update: The Edwards camp is already spinning the numbers—which, as Ben Smith notes, swing a wrecking ball through their “surge” storyline—not unreasonably questioning the accuracy of polling over a holiday weekend, and noting that many respondents remain uncertain of their vote.
In a post over the weekend I cited a campaign operative who worried polling around the holidays would be wacky. But he predicted that variable would undercount traveling young people, doing damage to Obama. If you believe his theory, Obama may be even stronger than this poll shows. But that’s a little hard to believe.
Crowley also believes Fred will drop out on Friday.
Register columnist David Ypsen:
- Undecideds exist. There are 6 percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers and 4 percent of the Republicans who have no first choice. Their final decisions will be enough to change the order of finish in both parties. That fact alone should keep anyone from using these polls to forecast the outcome of the race.
- Last-minute developments won’t be reflected. In 2004, 21 percent of those who showed up at Democratic caucuses decided who they’d support in the last three days of the campaign. This poll won’t reflect those decisions because it came out of the field on Sunday night—four days before people vote. So, for example, it can’t reflect the goofy press conference Huckabee held on Monday in which he promised not to run attack ads against Mitt Romney while producing them and showing them to reporters anyway. Right.
- Some support is soft. Of those who have decided on a candidate, 34 percent of the Democrats say they could still be persuaded to change their minds. Among Republicans, it’s 46 percent.
That GOP number reflects a profound dissatisfaction with their choices not, as some would hope, Iowans who can’t make up their minds.
Read the rest of Ypsen’s analysis. It contains some very bad news for Republicans next year as above all, voters are seeking a change.