November 28, 2022


In an era of deep skepticism about polling and pollsters, one firm’s reputation defies the rampant skepticism. When a new Selzer & Co. poll drops, particularly one detailing the state of play in the pollsters’ home state of Iowa, it’s worth paying attention to.

And when a Selzer poll conducted for the Des Moines Register shows that the state’s senior senator — in office for more than four decades — is suddenly at risk of ouster, it’s worth understanding that some significant change is afoot in the state.

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In the poll, released on Saturday, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R) has a three-point lead over his Democratic challenger, Navy admiral Mike Franken — a margin safely described as a toss-up. This is for an incumbent senator who has won reelection six times by an average margin of 35 percentage points. His closest Senate race to date was in 1980, when he was first elected; then he won by eight percentage points.

Since then, he’s enjoyed the benefits of incumbency in a state that’s seemingly culturally committed to the idea. In 2014, I wrote about the weird pattern in Iowa from 1980 through 2010: Voters in the state would go to the polls and vote overwhelmingly to send Grassley to the Senate and then, four years later, send Democrat Tom Harkin there as well. Sometimes Grassley’s reelection aligned with the presidential contest; sometimes Harkin’s did. Didn’t matter.

Then Harkin announced his retirement at the age of 74. In 2014, his seat was won by Joni Ernst (R), who held it in 2020. At about the same time, Iowa shifted more forcefully to the right in presidential voting.

But notice what happened with the margins in the presidential and Senate races since 2014, with the exception of Grassley’s. In 2014, Ernst won by about eight points. In 2020, she won reelection slightly more narrowly. Donald Trump won the state in 2016 and 2020 by nine points and eight points respectively. In other words, statewide federal elections in Iowa since 2014 have been consistently in the range of an eight-point GOP advantage.

Again, Grassley’s reelection in 2016 was an exception to the trend. But his last two reelection bids have been trending downward: In 2010 (a big Republican year) he won by 31 points, down from 42 points six years before. Then in 2016 he won by 24 points. If that trend was to continue, you’d expect him to win with a margin in the double digits this year, too.

But not only have Iowa politics become less bipartisan since 2014, Grassley himself has changed. To wit: He’s gotten older.

This is not an earth-shattering revelation, of course: noticing that time progresses in one consistent direction. But it seems clear that in a moment where the age of elected leaders is under particular scrutiny, seeking reelection at the age of 89 years old is not necessarily an asset.

That Grassley sought reelection is its own commentary on the aging of America. The oldest baby boomers are 76 years old, and there are a lot of them. But the arrival of the millennial generation in the voting pool means that there’s as much pressure from below for new leadership as there is support for members of Grassley’s generation.

Census Bureau data show that, in 2010, 21 percent of the national electorate was 10 years younger than Grassley or older. In 2020 — a presidential year with record turnout, admittedly — only 8 percent of the electorate was 10 years younger than Grassley or older. Seven percent of the 2010 electorate was 50 or more years younger than Grassley. In 2020, 29 percent of the electorate was.

This concern is reflected in the Selzer poll. Six in 10 Iowans see Grassley’s age as a concern; only a third see it as an asset. Among independents, twice as many Iowans view it as a concern as an asset.

Franken, Grassley’s opponent, is playing up the issue. An ad released by his campaign last month has older voters (or, at least, actors meant to represent such voters) complaining about Grassley’s votes centered on senior issues like health-care costs. But the point about Grassley’s age is unsubtle: It ends with a timeline of his time in the Senate and a rapid slideshow of Grassley’s appearance in each contest. A young Iowan becoming an elderly Washington institution.

Even if Grassley weren’t the age he is, it seems likely that he wouldn’t coast to reelection by a 30-point margin. But he is as old as he is, and Selzer’s data suggests that’s a liability.

And Selzer’s data are worth heeding.

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