Straw Poll, Straw Results? Making Sense of Iowa

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For presidency scholars like me, and for political junkies in general, today’s Republican straw poll in Ames, Iowa is the equivalent of the first preseason football game: the results don’t matter, but it is a reminder that the real games are not far off and it gives some of the second stringers a chance to showcase their talents. In this case, the straw poll comes about 5 months before the Iowa caucus – the traditional start of the presidential nomination race.  It is understandable, therefore, why the media has descended on Ames in anticipation of today’s vote, and they will undoubtedly spend much of the day parsing the results.  Who beat expectations?  Who did not meet them? Who will drop out? What do the results tell us about the nomination race more generally?

 As with the results of preseason football games, however, you need to be careful about reading too much into today’s results. To begin, since its inception back in 1979, the straw poll has not proved very reliable in predicting the Republican nominee, nor even the winner of the Iowa caucus. Including 1979, there have been six of these events (they aren’t held when there’s a Republican incumbent president running), and only twice has the winner – Bob Dole in 1995, and George W. Bush in 1999 – gone on to claim the Republican nomination, and only three times did the winner also take the Iowa caucus (George H.W. Bush in 1979, Dole in ’95 and George W. Bush in 1999).  In several of these years the Republican frontrunners didn’t even bother to compete in the event.  Thus neither McCain nor Giuliani participated in 2007. Note that neither Rick Perry nor Sarah Palin will be on the ballot today.  Moreover, prior to 1999, it was easy for non-Iowa residents to participate, with the result that candidates bused in supporters to bolster their vote.  So we need to be careful about putting too much predictive weight on the historical record.

So, why pay attention at all?  Some argue that the event can help winnow weaker candidates from the field. In that vein, pundits are openly speculating that a poor showing by Tim Pawlenty may sound the death knell for his candidacy.  But while it is true that in past years individuals who did not do well in the straw poll dropped out soon after, these were candidates who were going to be culled from the race sooner or later.  Also keep in mind that the event typically attracts only 10,000 to 20,000 people, on average, and they must pay $30 to participate (this doubles as a Republican fundraiser) so it’s not a very representative sample of the Iowa voters.

In short, the outcome doesn’t tell us much about the overall support any of the candidates are going to have in Iowa, never mind in the nomination race at all.  Perhaps the only justification for paying attention is that it does provide some signals to party activists and fundraisers who may still be deciding on whom to support. In this regard, I would pay less attention to the actual results, and more to how the various candidates’ supporters justify their vote, as well as how the candidates try to position themselves ideologically.  Who are they attacking and why?  What does this say about their nomination strategy?  That’s why Thursday’s debate was in some respects more significant than today’s results – it clearly showed how each candidate wanted to position themselves ideologically in this race, and what policy views they would adopt.

So, what should we expect?  The first string team is either not playing (Perry, Palin) or has been on the field only for a quarter or so (Romney).  It is the second string – particularly Pawlenty, Cain and Santorum – that views this event as a chance to boost media exposure and maybe bolster their fundraising and support among activists. There’s less pressure on Bachmann and Paul, because they have a corps of supporters who won’t be swayed by the results here one way or the other.  Gingrich will likely continue along, espousing ideas, no matter what happens.  So pay particular attention to the media spin regarding these three – Cain, Pawlenty and Santorum.  Journalists need to justify their inflated coverage of this event, and for that purpose they will jump at the opportunity to write the political obituaries of the “losers” .

However, Romney’s support in the poll may actually be significant in another sense.  In 2008 he staked his candidacy on a strong showing in Iowa, but after winning the straw poll he finished a disappointing second to Huckabee in the caucus.  This time around he has tried to lower expectations for Iowa, and has not actively participated in the straw poll events.   With Perry entering the race (again) today, and likely to attract strong support here in the Iowa caucus, a bad showing by Romney today may lead him to reconsider his Iowa strategy altogether, perhaps by reducing his presence here in the run up to the January caucus  in order to build up his campaign in New Hampshire.

I’ll be on later tonight after the results, to talk you down from the ledge, or from the artificial high, as the case may be.

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