Iowa Democrat Candidates:
The Polls Can’t Predict

Jan. 27, 2016 — Now less than a week before the Iowa Caucuses, five new polls of the Democratic presidential contest, all conducted within the same time period, arrive at very different conclusions. Three of the surveys find Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-D/VT) leading former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while two arrive at the opposite result.

All five polls — from CNN, the Emerson College Polling Society, CBS/YouGov, Fox News, and the American Research Group (ARG) — studied the Iowa Democratic electorate from Jan. 15-24. The sampling universes ranged from 258 likely Democratic Caucus attenders to 490 projected participants.

The Emerson College Polling Society, which is a group of students from Emerson College in Massachusetts who have established such a record of accuracy that the American Association of Public Opinion Research has granted them membership, employs the smallest sample size at 258 self-identified Democratic voters, while CBS/YouGov’s 490-person polling universe was the largest.

Here are the numbers, beginning with the most recent:
• ARG (Jan. 21-24; 400 Democratic Caucus Attenders): Sanders, 48-45%
• Fox News (Jan. 18-21; 423 DCA): Clinton, 48-42%
• CBS/YouGov (Jan. 18-21; 490 DCA): Sanders, 47-46%
• Emerson College Polling Society (Jan. 18-20; 258 DCA): Clinton, 52-43%
• CNN (Jan. 15-20; 280 DCA): Sanders, 51-43%

As you can see, the results are scattered across the board, with Sen. Sanders holding leads of one, three, and eight points, while Clinton scores advantages of six and nine points. Therefore, the aggregate conclusion suggests a very close race that could swing either way in the final days. It is noteworthy that the polls featuring the three largest sample sizes find the race to be much closer than the two small-sample entries. Actual voter turnout will determine the winner.

Though Clinton is in an unenviable early position for an “inevitable nominee”, and a Sanders’ Iowa win could certainly prove a springboard into the following week’s New Hampshire primary where surveys find him already performing consistently better, the two are not likely to be harbingers of a Sanders national victory. Hillary Clinton’s polling remains very strong in the southern states –- a new South Carolina poll, for example (CBS/YouGov; Jan. 18-21; 388 likely South Carolina Democratic primary voters), finds her leading the self-proclaimed “Socialist senator,” 60-38 percent — and those places dominate the Super Tuesday March 1 primary schedule.

The data is sending a warning signal to the Clinton camp for the general election, however. Both Iowa and New Hampshire are considered part of the eight swing states in the November election, a group that includes Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado and Nevada. The fact that she is having this much trouble in her own primary from these two important general election states should be of greater concern that potentially falling behind Sanders so early in the nominating process.

Iowa has 52 Democratic delegates that will be apportioned on a proportional basis. Therefore, from a delegate count perspective, the first vote will likely be inconclusive because the two candidates will most likely find themselves in a virtual tie. New Hampshire, on Feb. 9, will decide 32 delegates. The entire Democratic delegate universe is 4,764, of which a candidate must secure 2,383 votes to win the party nomination. The free agent Democratic “Super Delegates”, the nickname given the elected officials and party leaders who participate in the national convention, number 1,204.

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