J. Ann Selzer: Still Crunching the Numbers

J. Ann Selzer, the President of Selzer & Co. and one of America’s Leading Polling Firms (Photo Courtesy of J. Ann Selzer)

Ms. Selzer felt she was falling on deaf ears, or perhaps not enough. Either way, she quickly had the polling team at the Des Moines Register, in Iowa, working in-house, running through phone books, collecting a multitude of opinionated voices.  It was the late 1980s: the hours were grueling, the manpower was never enough, and the clock was always ticking. Fast forward to 2023: “not much has changed,” she says, “when you have a track record of success, it’s very difficult to change.”


Nothing in terms of her process, that is. Since then, Ms. Selzer has expanded her empire. Though her office remains a small, humble space, the work that takes place is substantial. 




In this day and age of mass information, J. Ann Selzer prefers to keep it simple.


Starting at the Des Moines Register in 1987, Ms. Selzer was in charge of the growing midwestern city’s only political poll. She and a few colleagues would go door to door, asking people to share their political preferences. 


After five years at the Register, Ms. Selzer was ready to do it herself. She began her own company, Selzer & Co., and set up shop in downtown Des Moines. Her work ethic and methodology are what have given her reputation. Politico calls it her “secret sauce”. Ms. Selzer herself doesn’t believe it’s so secret, though. In fact, she thinks it’s quite the opposite. She understands the recipe has led to success, but she doesn’t believe it’s any sort of secret: she’s actually surprised others didn’t catch on sooner. 


Approaching the headquarters of Selzer & Co., one would expect your typical corporate office. Selzer & Co. doesn’t believe bigger is better, though. They know that what they do is better, and they have the results to prove it. Instead, walking through the front doors of the company’s headquarters feels more like walking through the front doors of the home of one of their employees. A modest, family-style house sits between two actual office buildings on the main street of the quiet West Des Moines. In that house sits J. Ann Selzer, “America’s Best Pollster,” quietly going through potential voter response data. 


Gaining notoriety, respect, or any type of traction are some of the most difficult parts of any pollster’s job. Trying to do this while based in Iowa? Forget about it. The first caucus, a historically political battleground, getting it right is one thing, getting it right again, and again, is a whole new beast. Ms. Selzer, however, slayed that beast long ago. 


The year was 2008, and due to some trickery from other states, Iowa’s caucus, the first in the nation, was moved up to January 3rd. As other polling companies took off for the holidays between Christmas and New Year, Ms. Selzer found herself in her office, going through data that would cause her much pushback in the coming weeks. “Before 2008, you never had to worry about cell phones,” she told me, “If you just weighted your data properly, what you missed, you made up for. But [2008]  was at the dawn of cellphones, so everything changed: and for my career, everything changed as well.”


Selzer & Co.’s final poll on the Democratic side raised a lot of eyebrows. They had then-future President Barack Obama winning Iowa, and doing so quite easily. Obama had been pulling ahead in other polls, but only slightly. 


A friend of Ms. Selzer’s from the Clinton campaign called her after their final Democratic poll was released. She says the man, one of Clinton’s state co-chairs, told her he went out and knocked on 99 doors, and the results didn’t reflect the “lurking Obama support” that her poll had shown. “Well, what doors are you knocking on? Oh, former, previous caucus attendees, and registered Democrats? […] then you’re doing a real good job of predicting the last election, but the electorate does change.”


Ms. Selzer couldn’t have been more correct. So much so, that she could hardly believe her own data: “Our results showed that 60% of the people who were going to show up on the Democratic side, it would be their first caucus.” To a pollster, this is a number that gets ignored, as “nothing like that has ever happened.” Hilary Clinton and John Edwards’ campaigns agreed: “‘she’s crazy, she’s going to be fired,’” she recalls their campaigns saying about her. Ms. Selzer sat down with Judy Woodruff of NewsHour the following day in order to answer the questions everyone in Iowa was asking: “‘Why did you assume this?’ As if I had made up the 60% number.” She smiled, “I told them I assume nothing, my data showed me. And then we turned out to be right.”


Ms. Selzer has since coined the term ‘polling forward.’ Rather than drawing from a panel of registered, likely voters, Selzer & Co. doesn’t discriminate in their voter pool. Whether you’re a Democrat, Republican, or an Independent, whether it’s your first caucus or your fifth, Selzer & Co. will take your political intent into mind. Nobody else had paid mind to the incredibly high number of first-time voters showing up for Barack Obama; J. Ann Selzer did, and the media came knocking.


Since the infamous Obama prediction, Ms. Selzer’s demand has skyrocketed. Her clientele has vastly expanded, and Selzer & Co. does much more than just political polling. Heightened notoriety comes with an increase in pressure: more deadlines, more impact, more people. None of that’s ever fazed her. Criticism from the right, left, or middle has no bearing. She doesn’t allow any external factors to worry her: “That’s my trick: I’m always worried.”