DECORAH, IOWA – Standing at the back of a coffee shop in this college town in the northeast corner of the state, Democratic Senate candidate Bruce Braley raises an iPad displaying the iconic image of Harry Truman holding up a newspaper with the banner headline, “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN."
The papers got that race wrong, and Braley is hoping they’ll do the same for his. “This is what we’re looking forward to on Tuesday night!” Braley tells nervous supporters just two days before the conclusion of the state’s critical Senate race.
The specific newspaper Braley has in mind is the Des Moines Register, whose final poll of the race roiled the campaign Saturday night when it showed Republican Joni Ernst with a whopping seven percentage point lead.
"You know the only poll that I’m counting on? It’s the poll right here in my gut."'
It’s just one poll of many, as Democrats are quick to point out, and all the others suggest a closer race. But it says something about the state of this race that Braley is hoping to squeak by so closely that the results initially come out wrong.
And it’s not just him. It seems every Democrat in Iowa has a bone to pick with the Register poll.
“Listen folks, let’s just get this out in the open,” Sen. Tom Harkin says while opening for Braley at Java Johns here. “I’m sure you read about this Iowa poll … I’ve been in politics long enough, folks, and in enough races to know that there’s always one poll -- they just catch people on the wrong night, or they just don’t do their due diligence in their calling, and we have an outlier. This is one of the outlier polls. It just doesn’t fit into anything we know.”
“Neither side believes that,” Harkin continued. “I just don’t buy the poll because we haven’t had an open seat in 40 years.”
He may be right, as even Republicans think seven points is too big.
But the Register poll has an almost mystical ethos around it in the state, and a rare A+ rating from poll watcher Nate Silver. Four days before the 2008 Iowa Democratic Caucus, most pollsters gave Hillary Clinton a narrow lead, but the Register ended up correctly predicting not only Barack Obama’s win, but his margin of victory.
Instead, Harkin said he’s seeing good signs outside the numbers. “If we do this. I’m tellin’ you, I sense it, I feel it. I know Joni Enrst has run good ads, they’ve had a great campaign, I’m not taking anything away from her campaign, but we’ve the person that speaks to Iowans,” he said.
"That’s not the number we are seeing on the ground,” said Iowa Democratic Party Chair Scott Brennan.
Braley told msnbc after the event that he's encouraged by what he's seeing on the ground. “What you know is what you feel on the ground -- and that’s tremendous excitement and enthusiasm," he said.
It's what any candidate looking at bad poll numbers is inclined to say, and reminiscent of what Mitt Romney's supporters said heading into Election Day 2012.
The Register poll dropped Saturday night in the middle of Braley’s annual birthday party/Democratic fundraiser in Waterloo, just after former president Bill Clinton took the stage to campaign for Braley. What started off as a great day for Braley and his team, with a well-attended rally in Des Moines with Clinton and James Taylor, followed by his annual Bruce, Blues, and BBQ event, went south quickly after the poll came out.
Less than an hour after the poll was released, Braley’s campaign manager sent out a memo to reporters pushing back on “today’s outlier.” The campaign noted that 420,000 ballots have already been cast in early voting – a significant number in a state of three million – and said they have a lead among that group and voters who don’t typically vote in midterm elections.
“You know the only poll that I’m counting on? It’s the poll right here in my gut," Braley said Sunday.