Saturday, July 30, 2011

What is the Ames Straw Poll and why do we care?

Sometimes it's good to take a step back and do a little self-education about an apparently significant event in the current election cycle. Experts and other pundits talk about some of these things like we all know exactly what they are and how they work, which is frequently not the case.

Recently, as I have been trying to figure out how things are going in Iowa for the crop of Republicans seeking their party's nomination for the presidency, I've been hearing a lot about the Ames Straw Poll.

So, what is it?

Near as I can tell, it's a non-binding vote that takes place at a fundraising dinner in Ames, Iowa benefitting the Iowa Republican Party. Obviously, its purpose is to determine voters' preferences for GOP presidential candidates. Although there are a number of pre-Iowa Caucus "straw polls" in the state, it seems that Ames is by far the most important based on the fact that it is centrally located and draws voters from all over Iowa. This is the reason it's called the "Iowa Straw Poll."

The next one will take place on Saturday, August 13, 2011 at the Hilton Coliseum on the campus or Iowa State University.

As for voter eligibility, non-Republicans are allowed to vote. Voters have to be 18 years of age on or before the presidential election date, which, if I understand correctly, means a voter could be as young as 16 and 3/4 years old, or thereabouts. A voter must be a legal resident of Iowa or a student attending an Iowa university or college, which is really interesting given efforts by some Republican run states to disenfranchise college students. And, finally, a voter has to have bought a ticket to the fundraiser.

It also appears that the integrity of the vote is taken seriously as hands are stamped or dipped in ink to ensure that no one can vote twice, although in past years integrity may have been an issue.

Again, the vote is non-binding and has no official effect on the presidential primaries, but it is considered, whether fair or not, an indicator of the strength of a given campaign and treated as such by the media and others who pay attention.

Just to give a sense of the magnitude of the event, here are some results from 2007: Mitt Romney (4,516/31.6%); Mike Huckabee (2,587/18.1%); Sam Brownback (2,192/15.3%); Tom Tancredo (1,961/13.7%); Ron Paul (1,305/9.1%); Rudy Giuliani (183/1.3%); and John McCain (101/.7%).

I should note that neither Giuliani nor McCain attended the event in 2007, which obviously had an impact on their performance and the usefulness of the straw vote that year. Clearly, decisions to attend or not to attend are influenced by one's assessment of chances for success.

As for the August 13th vote, the following names will appear on the ballot: Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, Herman Cain, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, and Thad McCotter, all of whom are aggressively campaigning in the straw vote.

Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, and Newt Gingrich will also be on the ballot, though these three are not expected to attend.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Sarah Palin will not be on the ballot.

Bizarre as it may be, the Ames Straw Poll is considered the first major organizational test of the 2012 season. I guess any electoral contest is as important as the chattering classes deem it to be (whether it is or not).

All I can say is that Tim Pawlenty, thus far failing in all attempts to gain traction, probably has an awful lot riding on a bunch of people attending a fundraiser in the middle of Iowa in the middle of August. I'm sure he'll be sweating for all sorts of reasons.

(Cross-posted at Lippmann's Ghost.)

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