Opinion: Iowa Straw Poll: How it Works and Why it Doesn't Matter

Most people know what the Iowa caucuses are - the “first-in-the-nation” event where delegates are selected to support a wannabe candidate for President of the United States.

But before the caucuses take place on a freezing, windy January evening, there is another event that’s been gaining a lot of buzz - and without good reason. It’s the Iowa presidential straw poll held in Ames, Iowa. This year it takes place on August 13. 

How it works:

The Straw poll is basically a fundraising event and a daylong “fiesta”, “county fair,” “mini-convention,” or carnival in August sponsored by the Iowa Republican party.

Candidates may but space and set up tents and other event facilities, serve food and feature speeches and music. Attendees come from all over Iowa  - and in past years have even been bussed in from other states by candidates - and vote for their preferred candidate. At the end of the day someone “wins” the unscientific straw poll event.

Though the victory is symbolic, its rewards are not: The event is covered by the media from all over the U.S. and the world. (According to the Iowa GOP, so far 335 reporters have asked for credentials to the event.) And the winner garners lots of publicity and a polling bump.

Normally voters of all political affiliations are allowed to participate, all “voters” must be 18 years of age, legal residents of Iowa and they have to buy a ticket to the fundraising dinner. Participants have their hands stamped or their thumbs dipped in ink when they vote so that they can’t vote twice, and polling takes place on electronic machines. 

A highly flawed system:

Despite the obvious fruits, the Iowa straw poll is plagued by the fact that many GOP candidates do not participate. In 2007 Rudolph Giuliani, John McCain and Fred Thompson, top candidates at the time, skipped the poll completely. Mitt Romney won followed by Mike Huckabee. Rep. Ron Paul also claimed that the company running the voting system - then called Diebold - has misprogrammed or deliberately fudged the results because Paul claimed that the announced vote was lower than the tickets sold for the event and lower than exit polls.

The 2011 the straw poll is likely to suffer from some of the same flaws. Many of the top contenders for GOP nomination have indicated that they will not participate and that list today includes the supposed front runner Mitt Romney.

So far the following candidates have bought space to participate: Rep. Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain; Rep. Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan, Rep. Ron Paul, Former Minn. Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

A second problem is that this year there are still some potential dark horse candidates - especially Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Sarah Palin, who this week in an interview confirmed that she might run.

A third complication this year is that up to 20 percent of Iowa Republicans are still undecided and it’s not clear if they will attend. All of this means that the straw poll, while a fun event in the summer “news doldrums” and now a piece of the Iowa presidential selection lore, it is highly flawed as a predictor.

Beating expectations:

Let me add that the “magic” of the straw poll is that it’s basically a “gotcha!” event in which the ultimate objective is for a candidate to surpass previous expectations of how well they might do in the caucuses. So the winner is not always the number one but whoever beat the predictions.

The buzz around Iowa GOP activists this year is that it will probably be a contest between Iowa front-runner Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, and Ron Paul (he always gets wildly enthused college students – who knows why - to vote for him). 

Steffen Schmidt is professor of political science at Iowa State University, blogs for the Des Moines Register and WNYC “It’s a Free Country,” and is chief political correspondent for Insideriowa.com