About That Independent Turnout
By Jon Cohen
One leftover from the fierce brouhaha over the Des Moines Register poll, and a cautionary tale for looking at tonight's caucus results, is the truism that even exit (or entrance) polls are still only polls.
The demographics of the 2008 Iowa entrance poll will live on in campaign lore (and some pollsters' models) as "facts" for years to come. If the GOP poll shows 50 percent of caucus-goers to be evangelical, well then, that was so -- and will remain so until after the next election.
In reality, the entrance poll, like all polls, produces estimates, with a margin of sampling error, etc. And questionnaire design can affect results.
The Register's last pre-caucus poll, for example, came under quick fire from the Clinton and Edwards campaigns (Obama led the poll) for having "too many" independents in its sample. Forty percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers in the Register's sample described themselves as "independent" -- far higher than the 19 percent who said so the 2004 Democratic entrance poll.
While that 19 percent is now bandied about as truth, the 2004 entrance poll reported a five-point error margin for a typical characteristic, and, perhaps more importantly, the questionnaire may have tilted the playing field.
The 2004 Democratic questionnaire asked people "No matter who you are supporting tonight, do you usually think of yourself as a: Strong Democrat, Not strong Democrat, Independent or Republican"?
Respondents, then, were offered two chances to say "I'm a Democrat" -- but only one to call themselves "independent" as they arrived to caucus for a Democratic candidate. Perhaps some independents called themselves "not strong Democrats" on Jan. 19, 2004, making the percentage of independents to caucus in 2004 greater than 19 percent.
We'll never know for sure. Nor does it matter all that much, since this is not 2004, and the Democratic contest today is not like it was four years ago.
Quality pre-election polls have set the stage. Tonight Iowans will end the long-wait, and this year's entrance poll will provide the details -- plus or minus.
Posted at 9:01 AM ET on Jan 3, 2008
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