Alumni Q&A with J. Ann Selzer, political pollster

Ann Selzer TV
J. Ann Selzer at a Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics caucus poll release press conference.

When pundits and the public turn their attention to Iowa and its presidential caucuses every four years, J. Ann Selzer has become something of a political celebrity. In 2008, when Hillary Clinton was pursuing her first bid for president, Selzer predicted an upset victory from Barack Obama. Her pronouncement had its skeptics. But they were silenced when the high voter turnout that Selzer had predicted vaulted Obama to a win in Iowa. Since that moment, her place as the polling guru of Iowa has been cemented.

Selzer started out running polling for the Des Moines Register newspaper in 1987 and has run nearly all of the Register’s Iowa Polls since. She set out on her own to run her polling firm, Selzer & Company, full-time in 1992. In the midst of another presidential cycle (and one that is baffling pollsters and pundits), we caught up with Ann to learn more about how she got into this profession and the value of being a sponge for knowledge.

Hometown: Born in Rochester, Minnesota; raised in Topeka, Kansas

KU degree: Bachelor’s, Speech and Dramatics Arts, 1978

Current Title: President, Selzer & Company

How do you describe your job? We run public opinion polls, audience research, surveys, focus groups, executive interviews, etc.  We use research to help our clients learn things they would not otherwise know to maximize their success.

Tell us a little about your career journey:  I have the most linear career track of anyone I know.  After KU, I spent a year on a direct exchange fellowship (thank you KU!) in Reading, England; then grad school at the University of Iowa, culminating in a doctorate in communication theory and research.  I have worked as a researcher ever since, including a stint on the staff of The Des Moines Register running the Iowa Poll and conducting research to support advertising sales.  I marched forth on March 4, 1994, to devote myself full-time to my small but mighty research company.

What do you love about the polling profession? I love listening to really smart reporters offer hunches about why things are happening the way they are, then running numbers to confirm or deny. You have to think, what data do I have, and what number could I isolate on that point?

How do you assess the state of polling in this cycle’s presidential race?  There’s never been a nominating contest like this.  So, so many polling hits and misses across the industry.

How has polling changed since you started conducting the Des Moines Register’s polls in 1988?  The science stays the same.  We can turn things around much, MUCH faster, so the pressure is greater.  Many other technology changes had to be hurtled—multiple phone numbers per household, caller ID, answering machines, cell phones, etc.  Also, the proliferation of polls.  We were the only game in Iowa in 1988.  Now more than a dozen companies polled in the Iowa caucuses.

My best KU memory: Football pregame show!  I still get a chill thinking about the band running doubletime on to the field!

My guilty pleasure: “Dancing with the Stars.”  No one could predict I would enjoy this.  But I like seeing people learn how to do something that is very difficult.  The back-story packages are very well produced.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party? Regis Philbin (I spent 45 minutes in his office chatting one time—long story); David Brooks (never met him); Nina Totenberg of NPR.

My best advice for college students:  Be a sponge.  By my senior year, I had all my requirements and all my hours in my major done, so I could just play.  Art history.  English history.  Modern sociological theory.  Wish I had taken a class in logic.  And, in argumentation.  And classical rhetoric.  All these enhance the way I think today. Your brain is your greatest asset.  So treat it as the precious possession it is, and enrich it with quality information and experiences.