Follow any of Rand Paul’s supporters on Facebook and you’re likely to have heard one thing about today’s Iowa caucuses: Paul is about to shock the world. The Kentucky senator has been polling in the lower half of Hawkeye Cauci participants and the Real Clear Politics average currently has him tied with Jeb Bush in fifth. Thanks to his strong ground game, Paul partisans think their man has a serious chance at placing third.
Can it happen? It’s certainly possible.
First to the bad news. Back in 2012, the polls were highly predictive of Congressman Ron Paul’s placement in the Iowa caucuses. The RCP average at the time had Paul winning 21.5 percent of the vote; he ultimately won 21.4 percent of the vote. If his son is going to place third, he’ll need to buck the numbers in a way his father never did.
Key to this will be the youth vote that’s been so instrumental for both Ron and Rand. In 2012, only 4 percent of eligible 17-to-29-year-old voters in Iowa turned out for the caucuses. However, the young also constituted 15 percent of total caucus-goers, a formidable coalition. Among those youth voters, Paul won an absolutely dominating 48 percent; in second place was Rick Santorum with only 23 percent. A Rand Paul victory will require a surge of college students and young adults that, as with his father, coalesce behind him, and, unlike with his father, dwarf what the polls have long predicted
By no means is this outside the realm of possibility. Remember, none of the polls caught Rick Santorum’s last-minute gallop in Iowa that outpaced both Paul and Mitt Romney, and won him the caucuses. And while the pollsters were generally accurate in predicting the 2012 general election, since then they’ve had a sorry record, missing the 2014 Republican tidal wave, David Cameron’s decisive victory in Great Britain, and Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to office in Israel.
Why are their crystal balls fogging up? Cliff Zukin examined this problem in the New York Times last year and fingered a number of culprits, including an increase of phone users who don’t live in the boundaries of their area codes, record low response rates to calls from pollsters, and—most importantly for Paul—a surge in cell phones. The 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act forbids pollsters from using automatic dialers to call cell phones, meaning every call must be individually initiated. This has made polling far more expensive and volatile. It’s also increased the likelihood of undercounting young voters, many of whom haven’t picked up a landline since Mom called the cordless phone collecting dust on the dorm room desk.
“Students are on cell phones,” Rand Paul said last month in New Hampshire. “They don’t answer phone calls that they don’t want to answer. I have yet to meet a college student who has been polled.” He has a point. By the end of his New York Times piece, Zukin sounds almost morose:
So what’s the solution for election polling? There isn’t one. Our old paradigm has broken down, and we haven’t figured out how to replace it. Political polling has gotten less accurate as a result, and it’s not going to be fixed in time for 2016. We’ll have to go through a period of experimentation to see what works, and how to better hit a moving target.
Paul needs the pollsters to miss the particularly frenetic youth vote target by a mile. He also needs those youth voters to actually turn out. Eighteen-to-29-year-olds are notoriously unreliable at the ballot box. However, Donald Trump may very well suffer from the same problem. According to the famous Des Moines Register survey, Trump has a 16-point lead among those who say this is their first Iowa caucus. If, as with every other caucus in history, they don’t turn out today, it could create breathing room for the other candidates.
The problem is that Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Ben Carson are all eyeing the same poll flaws and thinking they’ll benefit. Team Carson, in particular, remembers the Santorum Surge of 2012 and hopes another long-dismissed social conservative is due for a rebound. But Santorum won largely because he had a formidable ground game that went ignored by the media—something he has more in common with Paul than Carson. Will that be enough to elevate Paul? We’ll find out tonight.