According to FiveThirtyEight’s poll averages, former President Trump has a 30-plus-point lead going into next week’s Iowa caucuses, and a narrower 12-point lead in New Hampshire’s primary on Jan. 23. As it stands, anything besides Trump victories would mean the polls missed.
But what if the polls are wrong? Poll misses in Iowa and New Hampshire are pretty common events. Both states offer unique—and opposite—complexities for pollsters. The Iowa caucus system depresses turnout by its very nature; only those most motivated to show up will physically go to a meeting at a set time and stay until it finishes. That can take a while, as the first order of business is to elect a caucus chair and secretary. Then supporters can give speeches on behalf of candidates. Eventually, there is a secret-ballot vote.
Republicans start this process at 7 p.m. local time, when most people who work traditional nine-to-five jobs are off work—but those doing farm or shift work, or who have childcare needs, or who have any of a thousand other reasons they cannot be present at that time, are excluded. Also, it’s Iowa in January. The weather is a factor. This makes it quite difficult for pollsters to gauge turnout in pre-caucus polls.
In the 2016 Iowa Republican caucuses, Sen. Ted Cruz won the vote count by a narrow 3-point margin, with Trump coming in second, and Sen. Marco Rubio just barely behind Trump. Most polls had shown Trump leading, but only by a few points—Trump and Cruz had been running a tight race in the month leading up to the caucuses, with Cruz narrowly up in a few surveys.
This year, Trump is averaging more than 50 percent in Iowa polls. As of this publication, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is far behind at 17 percent, and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley is sitting at 16 percent. These numbers have barely shifted since September. Polls are snapshots of the potential electorate, not predictions, but they are supposed to reflect reality to some degree. A miss of more than 30 percentage points would mean the polls did not come anywhere close to reflecting reality—and a historically huge miss that might prove insurmountable for the field’s reputation. To be clear, I don’t think this will happen. Trump is overwhelmingly likely to win Iowa.
The bigger question is what happens in New Hampshire, whose primaries are also notoriously tricky to poll. The conundrum is the same—estimating turnout—but in New Hampshire, the challenge is that voters not affiliated with either party can vote in partisan primaries, and the exact number of these nonaffiliated voters who show up matters tremendously. Polls have to estimate the right mix of Republican primary voters and independent primary voters, which is even more important this year since polls show nonaffiliated voters are much more likely to prefer non-Trump candidates.
In 2016, Trump won New Hampshire easily, but with only 35 percent of the vote. Center-right candidate John Kasich came in second with 15 percent of the vote. The remaining vote fractured between seven other candidates. This cycle, Trump held somewhere between 40 and 47 percent support, on average, throughout 2023. Haley has surged in the last few weeks to average 30 percent support—just 12 percentage points behind Trump. One pollster, American Research Group, has shown Haley trailing Trump by a mere 4 points in its last two polls. This week, the CNN/University of New Hampshire poll has the gap at 7 points, while a Boston Globe/Suffolk University/USA Today poll shows Haley down 20 points.
The breakdown of ARG’s most recent poll shows that Haley’s chances hinge on more independent voters casting ballots. She leads Trump 36 to 29 percent among that group; Trump handily wins registered Republicans 42 to 31 percent. The CNN/UNH poll shows an even larger gap, with Haley up 43 to 17 percent over Trump among nonaffiliated likely voters. The Globe/Suffolk/USA Today poll shows a narrower gap, with Haley up 36 to 26 percent. The size of that gap and the proportion of unaffiliated voters who cast ballots in the Republican primary will determine the outcome.
Of course, what happens in Iowa will affect how people in New Hampshire vote. Should Trump turn in a weaker-than-expected performance, there might be more space for Haley to climb at the last minute. If Iowa goes as expected or more strongly than expected for Trump, there might be less space. But if an upset could happen, it’s much more likely in New Hampshire.
Just don’t expect that to mean Trump is suddenly vulnerable. He’s averaging nearly 62 percent in national polls, roughly 50 points ahead of the next competitor. That will take more than Iowa or New Hampshire momentum to overcome.
Weekly column written by Vice President Natalie Jackson for National Journal.
This column was originally published on January 9, 2024, on nationaljournal.com and is owned by and licensed from National Journal Group LLC.