|Ready, Ames, Fire: Why the Straw Poll Doesn’t Mean Much (Updated)|
|Commentary/Politics - Guest Commentaries|
|Written by Jeff Ignatius|
|Monday, 15 August 2011 13:20|
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(This is an updated version of the original article published August 10. The orginal version follows.)
The relevance of this past Saturday’s Ames Straw Poll is nothing but a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If a candidate doesn’t believe the straw poll important, there’s no reason a poor showing matters. Just ask John McCain, whose apathy toward Iowa earned him 10th-place finishes in 1999 and 2007 but didn’t stop him from earning his party’s presidential nomination in 2008.
If a candidate believes the straw poll important, a performance below expectations can mean the end of a campaign. Just ask Tim Pawlenty, who finished third on Saturday and withdrew the next day. Or Tommy Thompson, who dropped out of the presidential race after finishing sixth in the 2007 straw poll.
For a mix of both, ask Mitt Romney, who won the 2007 straw poll but didn’t win the Iowa Caucus or his party’s nomination. This year, he’s largely skipped Iowa, although he participated in August 11’s nationally televised debate from Ames. He finished seventh in Saturday’s straw poll, and you should read absolutely nothing into that.
Michele Bachmann certainly hopes that her victory Saturday portends good things for her campaign, but the past indicates that’s not a safe bet.
The reality is that if you’re a candidate, the straw poll is at best a measuring stick. Set a goal, work toward it, and see how things shake out. Both Ron Paul and Herman Cain targeted a top-three finish, while Rick Santorum said he wanted to finish fourth. (They wisely articulated their expectations so the media didn’t do it for them.) Paul finished second, Santorum nailed his spot, and Cain took fifth.
Oh, there can be outside repercussions to the Ames Straw Poll. The conventional wisdom said a poor performance by Pawlenty would sink his candidacy. The Los Angeles Times opined: “Without a strong showing in the straw vote, Pawlenty may find it difficult to attract the money he’ll need to keep going.” Rather than wait for that to prove true, the former Minnesota governor called it quits on Sunday.
Yet this pre-poll handicapping and the postmortem noise and spin also represent the self-fulfilling-prophecy aspect of the straw poll. Pundits ascribe importance to the straw poll, and the more they say it, the truer it becomes. As ridiculous as it sounds, the Ames Straw Poll matters because people to whom people listen say it matters.
But while it is an undoubtedly a national media event – and while it does thin the GOP field a little – you’d be wise to largely ignore the straw-poll results and coverage.
Testing Organization Strength
To be clear, I’m not arguing that Saturday’s vote wasn’t important. Vote totals from the straw poll represented 12.0 percent of the Iowa Caucus GOP vote for the 2008 campaign, 27.0 percent for 2000, and 11.4 percent for 1996. Ames voters, in other words, are a great base on which to build a campaign. If they’re willing to vote for you in this silly charade, they’ll almost certainly stand for you at the caucus, and they’re likely to knock on doors for you, too.
But I am saying the straw poll is only important in a certain context, namely as one way for candidates to assess their ability to translate campaign activities into action by citizens.
The Ames straw poll is touted (over and over) as a “key test of a candidate’s organizational strength,” and that’s how candidates should use it. If you can’t mobilize a few thousand people to vote for you in Ames, then it’s unlikely you’ll have the resources or campaign mettle to compete in the Iowa Caucus or nationally. A mere 2,200 votes would have placed you third in the 1995 and 2007 straw polls, and fourth in 1999 and 2011. That’s a modest hurdle. (It seems to me that campaigns should evaluate their performance in terms of raw votes rather than where their candidates finished. Comparing votes to resources invested – tickets and travel provided, candidate events, advertising, staff – gives a sense of a campaign’s efficiency, and helps clarify the calculation of how much money it will take to compete in the Iowa Caucus.)
Yet the organizational-strength refrain also hints at the meaninglessness of the straw poll to the rest of us. The nature of the event means that it’s simply not a measure of popular support in Iowa. At core it’s a fundraiser for the Iowa Republican party, and tickets (which are required to vote) cost $30 apiece, and people need to get to Ames to participate. There’s nothing to prevent campaigns from buying tickets and providing them free to supporters, or from providing travel to Ames.
Candidates who want to reserve space at the event (and speak there, and guarantee a spot on the ballot) must bid at least $15,000 for the privilege, and six candidates did so this year, led by Paul’s bid of $31,000. (The other five: Bachmann, Cain, Thaddeus McCotter, Pawlenty, and Santorum.)
This underscores that money and mobilization matter more than grass-roots support when the votes in Ames are counted. And it highlights how the Iowa Republican party has smartly structured the straw poll to maximize its revenues.
For that to work, however, candidates and their handlers must buy into claims about the event’s relevance. The argument goes that the Iowa Caucus is important to the presidential-nominating process, and the Ames Straw Poll is important to the Iowa Caucus, and therefore you need to get people to buy tickets and vote for you, and you can improve your standing by buying space at the event and on the ballot.
No-Shows and History
Yet those first two assumptions aren’t really true. Even setting aside the fundraising elements of the Ames straw poll, there are many reasons to take its results with some salt.
First, the last four straw polls – including Saturday’s – have had vote totals between 11,000 and 24,000, so it’s a relatively small sample size.
Further, while you do need to be a resident of Iowa to vote, there’s no requirement that you prove your GOP bona fides. That means that a few hundred or thousand spendthrift Story County Democrats could easily monkey with the straw-poll results by buying tickets and voting.
And there are the no-shows this year. As past straw polls predicted, Romney’s absence in Iowa resulted in a poor showing (fewer than 600 votes). He was on the ballot – along with the six who reserved space, Newt Gingrich, and Jon Huntsman – but, as McCain proved and Romney reinforced, not actively campaigning in Iowa greatly diminishes the weight given to one’s showing there. (And McCain proved, with vote totals of 101 and 83, that Iowans won’t vote for a candidate who snubs the state. Romney certainly didn’t embarrass himself with his finish, generating some support with limited effort.)
The other elephants not in the room, of course, were Rick Perry and Sarah Palin; they weren’t on the straw-poll ballot because they hadn’t officially said whether they would run. Perry announced his bid the same day as the straw poll, and he can point to his 700-plus write-in votes as evidence of a groundswell of support. Still, the contest effectively excluded three prominent national figures who will likely shape the race.
Over all those things is history, and the straw poll has virtually no predictive value. A candidate can do well in Ames with a focused, local effort, but that doesn’t mean that candidate can therefore compete across the state or the country.
Romney won the 2007 straw poll, but Mike Huckabee won the Iowa Caucus, and McCain was his party’s presidential nominee.
It’s true that in the two straw polls prior to that, the Ames victor also won the Iowa Caucus and became his party’s nominee: George W. Bush in the 2000 campaign, and Bob Dole (who tied Phil Gramm in Ames) in 1996.
But Pat Robertson won in Ames in 1987, and Dole topped the Iowa Caucus, and George H.W. Bush captured the presidential nomination. And in the 1980 campaign, George H.W. Bush won both the straw poll and the Iowa Caucus, but Ronald Reagan got the party’s nomination.
One way to look at it is that the winner of the five Ames straw polls has only twice earned his party’s nomination the next year, and only George W. Bush was elected president.
A key component of that is the long campaign that still lies ahead. The straw poll is nearly six months before the Iowa Caucus, more than a year before the 2012 Republican National Convention, and nearly 15 months before the national general election. Even if the straw poll were an accurate snapshot of the GOP field right now, there’s simply too much road in front of us for that to be genuinely meaningful.
But it is not an accurate snapshot. Our presidential campaigns are often equated with horse races, but I think a better sports comparison for the Ames Straw Poll comes from baseball. Saturday’s event is like a home-run derby: It measures a specific skill that is only one component of winning games, and being victorious gets you no closer to claiming a World Series title.