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Ready, Ames, Fire: Why the Straw Poll Doesn’t Mean Much (Updated) - Page 2 PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Guest Commentaries
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Monday, 15 August 2011 13:20

(This is the original version of this article, published August 10. The updated version is above.)

The relevance of Saturday’s Ames Straw Poll is nothing but a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If a candidate doesn’t believe it 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 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 skipping Iowa, although he will participate in Thursday’s nationally televised debate (at 8 p.m. Central on Fox News) from Ames.

So if you’re a candidate, the straw poll can be a valuable measuring stick. Set a goal, work toward it, and see how things shake out. Both Ron Paul and Herman Cain have targeted a top-three finish, while Rick Santorum has said he wants to finish fourth. (They’ve wisely articulated their expectations so the media doesn’t do it for them.)

Oh, there can be outside repercussions to the Ames Straw Poll. The conventional wisdom says that a poor performance by Tim 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.” (The assessment of Pawlenty’s post-Ames standing will be tied to how he does compared to fellow Minnesotan Michele Bachmann.) This type of handicapping is rampant now, and will serve as the basis for the postmortem noise and spin.

Yet this again is 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 undoubtedly a national media event, do yourself a favor and ignore nearly all the pre- and post-straw-poll coverage.

Testing Organization Strength

To be clear, I’m not arguing that Saturday’s vote isn’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. 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 three straw polls 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. Romney’s absence in Iowa means he’ll show poorly in the straw poll, if the past is any guide. He’s on the ballot – along with the six who reserved space, Newt Gingrich, and Jon Huntsman – but McCain proved that not actively campaigning in Iowa greatly diminishes the weight given to one’s showing there. And he proved, with vote totals of 101 and 83, that Iowans won’t vote for a candidate who snubs the state. (By campaigning in Iowa this week, Romney is raising expectations for his straw-poll finish; it’s a risky strategy that will be seen as a grave misstep if he pulls McCain-like numbers.)

The other elephants not in the room, of course, are Rick Perry and Sarah Palin; they aren’t on the straw-poll ballot because they haven’t officially said whether they’ll run. So the contest effectively excludes 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.

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