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

Saturday, July 23, 2011 - 12:00 AM

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

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Comments [16]

Tom Cadell from Geneva, Illinois

Rumor is that the reason the Iowa GOP won't allow write-in candidates on the straw poll is that they are deathly afraid the Mickey Mouse will be the biggest winner. Is that true?

Aug. 13 2011 11:29 PM
James from Indianapolis

I'm a graduated engineer of over 10 years... still pray for Ron Paul to win 2012 everyday. How does that fit into your narrow minded accusations?

Sadly, the idea of freedom and personal liberty again have become a young idea.... our founding fathers would be ashamed....

Aug. 13 2011 06:26 PM
MS

I will tell you why, because for once these college students that support Ron Paul can actually have a conversation about the ISSUES, something that most other candidates supporters cannot do. They are "sold" on who the best candidate is by the MSM. More and more people are waking up to the FACT that the right and left MSM outlets are propaganda wings of the establishment, and the majority of Ron Pauls supporters are people who care about ISSUES, NOT what kind of phone they use or what kind of pizza they like.

Aug. 13 2011 02:49 AM

"Who knows why?" WHO KNOWS WHY?!?! Psych!! I'm totally calm and collected. With that being said, you're either really dumb, or you're an establishment hack. Americans have been given a choice of the lesser of two evils for decades while our once prosperous nation was literally run into the ground. The fundamentals of this country are so strong that only a century of insidious and rapacious subversion could override them and leave us in this commiserable position. However, that is what happened. Ron Paul is the ONLY politician running with a pristine record of following only his integrity, never once catering to the establishment for anything. Still, he managed to get elected to Congress 11 times. It is ridiculous how you can question why Americans have been drawn to Dr. Paul's message.

Aug. 12 2011 07:11 PM
Jenn

In my opinion the author is another MSM a$$ clown towing the "Ron Paul can't win" line. Previously the Iowa Straw Poll was hugely important. Now that the BS RINO shill candidates don't stand a chance, all of a sudden the MSM and Repub elite claim Iowa "doesn't matter." Well, it does matter. And we are sick of you tyrants. Ron Paul 2012. And as to why college students embrace Dr. Paul? Simple, they love freedom and common sense.

Aug. 04 2011 07:11 PM
Jenneefer

In my opinion the author is another MSM a$$ clown towing the "Ron Paul can't win" line. Previously the Iowa Straw Poll was hugely important. Now that the BS RINO shill candidates don't stand a chance, all of a sudden the MSM and Repub elite claim Iowa "doesn't matter." Well, it does matter. And we are sick of you tyrants. Ron Paul 2012. And as to why college students embrace Dr. Paul? Simple, they love freedom and common sense.

Aug. 04 2011 07:10 PM

The date of the straw poll is not August 11, it's August 13. So the button in the graphic is right; the article is wrong.

Jul. 26 2011 01:51 AM
JTWilliams from KZoo, MI

Weak attempt to dismiss an event that has meant alot for a long time- that is, until the establishment's candidates can't guarantee a win. I guess they'll only appear when the electronic voting machines are active!

Jul. 24 2011 12:30 PM
Pat G from Pennsylvania

The assessment of why Ron Paul wins would have been less bias If Steffen explained Bachmann as--(she is predicted to win among old men because she looks and acts like a Barbie doll--and old men like barbie dolls)

Jul. 23 2011 12:55 PM
Pro

"Ron Paul (he always gets wildly enthused college students – who knows why - to vote for him)"

Of course there is an answer to this question, and who could answer that better than a professor of political science?

Steffen Schmidt makes himself a fool with that statement.

Jul. 23 2011 09:47 AM
Justin

Considering it isn't a binding vote I think it's a great way for prospective voters to express their views. The author of this article obviously would rather have media cram candidates down our throat. This isn't some "flawed system." This isn't part of "the system" at all; it's an organic consequence of our electoral laws. But thanks for saying it doesn't matter ahead of time so when Ron Paul wins it really won't. Yay freedom.

Jul. 23 2011 09:40 AM
Louis Nardozi from Pensacola

I just want to say let's hear it for The Man With A Spine. Ron Paul has the intestinal fortitude to do what needs to be done to get our corporate masters off our backs.

Vote Vertebrate - Ron Paul 2012!

Jul. 23 2011 02:54 AM
KJ

According to a Rasmussen poll today, Ron Paul polls second best (after Romney) of all candidates against Obama head to head. Obama gets the least support (41%) when polled against Ron Paul. This follows a May 5 poll by CNN finding Ron Paul polled better than any other GOP potential contender against Obama.

Apparently it isn't just college students who like him.

Jul. 23 2011 02:32 AM
John

If it doesn't matter, then why did the candidates who lifted up their noses at it in the first place and now want their names on the ballot without paying for a spot to set up their campaigns? Romney probably just leased a 100 buses to bring in his minions to stuff the ballot box and now he's crying about not being on the ballot. I say tough! He had his chance and blew it.

Jul. 23 2011 02:06 AM
bek76

Exactly, Kaphen, thank you.

Their generation straps a ticking time bomb to our chest, in the form of unsustainable debt, and then they wonder why the young people are more than a little pissed off about it?

Well, not that Schmidt even bothers to wonder...

Jul. 23 2011 01:03 AM
Kaphen DePriest

"Ron Paul (he always gets wildly enthused college students – who knows why - to vote for him). "

Maybe it's because they are sick of getting stuck with the bill for the mess your generation has made.

Jul. 23 2011 12:34 AM

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