Sunday, August 14, 2011

Same Old Song and Dance

Yesterday the Iowa Republican Party held one of its largest fundraising events. We call it the Ames Straw Poll. Just under 17000 attended and voted at $30/ticket, most bought by campaigns & handed out for free to supporters. I will be the first to admit that this is great political theater. What it is not however is particularly meaningful political theater. 

The history of the event undermines its claim to relevance:

The first straw poll was held in 1979. The new event was not particularly successful, as turnout was low. Nevertheless the inaugural winner was George H.W. Bush. Bush would go on to win Iowa in 1980, but lose the nomination (and become VP to) Ronald Reagan.

Eight years later Bush was back, running to succeed Reagan. Surely the 1979 winner won again in '87, right? Wrong. Bush finished 3rd that year, with Sen. Bob Dole 2nd and Pat Robertson winning. (Yes, Pat Robertson of 700 Club fame ran for President.) Robertson did not win the Iowa caucuses though: that winner was Dole, with Robertson 2nd and Bush 3rd. Of course this had little impact on the course of the '88 nomination, where then-VP Bush won the nomination handily en route to the Presidency.

1995 was to date the only tie in Straw Poll history. Bob Dole, back again, finished in a first place tie with Texas Sen. Phil Gramm. Dole kept his frontrunner status, won the Iowa caucuses, and rode it to the nomination, while Gramm raised millions yet performed so poorly in Iowa and Louisiana he dropped out before New Hampshire.

The 1999 Straw Poll saw the largest turnout in its history as a 2-man battle raged for the victory. The winner was eventual nominee and Iowa caucus winner George W. Bush, but the man he battled was not John McCain but Steve Forbes. Forbes spent millions hoping to win the Straw Poll but would finish 2nd, while McCain was 10th, having not even declared his candidacy at the time.

2007 saw Mitt Romney the Straw Poll winner, with Mike Huckabee (the eventual Iowa winner) a surprising 2nd. Where was our 2008 nominee McCain? Despite having declared months earlier this time, McCain found himself in familiar territory...10th, behind 3 men who would drop out before an official vote was cast (Tom Tancredo, Sam Brownback, and Tommy Thompson). Indeed, combining McCain's '99 and '07 straw poll votes would only equal half the total of this year's 8th place finisher Newt Gingrich (184 combined vs 365).

Recapping, there have been 5 previous Ames Straw Polls. Of the 6 winners (thanks to the '95 tie), 3 failed to win the Iowa caucuses, 4 lost the nomination, and only George W. Bush actually won the Presidency. This year Michelle Bachmann and Ron Paul finished 1-2. When deciding how to extrapolate these results to next year's primaries and caucuses, keep in mind how little bearing past straw polls have had on reality.

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