Opinion: Iowa Straw Polls of Years Past Offer Few Predictions. Here's One Anyway

I'm calling it now: Texas Governor Rick Perry gets into the race at the same time as the Ames Straw Poll, will do well in the caucuses, go on to win the nomination and beat Barak Obama in November 2012.

There, I’ve given you the crystal ball prediction from a consensus of my contacts all over the United States, including Republicans who are currently working for other candidates.

I am asked several times a day “How important is the Ames Presidential Straw poll?” I’ve blogged this, written about it and given endless talks and college lectures so I’ll say this just one more time and pay attention!

Some years, especially 1999, the straw poll scores a perfect hit. “W” Bush won the Ames Straw Poll, the Iowa Caucuses, got the GOP nomination, and became president of the United States.

Other years the Ames Poll does less well.

In 1987 both Iowa events – the Straw Poll and the caucuses - got it wrong. Pat Robertson won the poll (Christian conservatives turned out their churches), Bob Dole won the caucuses, but George H. W. Bush (Bush Senior) walked away with the nomination and won the election.

The 2007 election was the worst, with no connection between either of the two Iowa political events the national nomination and the election in November. Mitt Romney won the Poll, Mike Huckabee the caucuses but the nomination went to Sen. John McCain who lost to Obama in the general election.

The GOP Ames Straw Poll creates a lot of buzz for the Republicans, raises a bunch of money for the party, brings economic development to Iowa, (especially the central part of the state) and gives the media something to talk about a year out from the conventions.

In reality, the Straw Poll tells you very little about the organizational skills of campaigns - supposedly it’s most important metric. Winners in the poll often do not go on to win the Iowa caucuses, which in my book would validate the maxim that if you are so well organized that you win the Poll, you should win the caucuses too.

Even a double header – winning the straw poll AND the Iowa caucuses is not guarantee that a candidate will get the nomination - see 1979 when George H.W. Bush won both, and lost the primary election to Ronald Reagan.

The straw poll allows minor and far-fetched individuals to run in a visible contest and have a good time, but doesn't mean much. The 2007 Poll was an especially good example of this where Mitt Romney won the Poll, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee took home the caucus victory, and Sen. John McCain got the nomination.

In 2011 there is great anticipation about how well some of the candidates with lesser buzz - such as Rick Santorum - will be doing. The answer is that you never know, and it depends on how much they have connected with Iowa Republicans, how well-oiled their turnout machine is, and how much competition there is in the personality or ideological niche that, say Santorum, occupies.

This year, every GOP niche is covered by at least two contenders – two women with a lot of buzz (Palin is still considered to be a likely candidate by many), two “business Types – Romney and Huntsman, several faith based favorites (including Bachmann who covers several areas and is likely to win the straw poll). So there will be lots of slicing and dicing of attendees at the poll and the winner may have a small percentage as a result.

For example, Santorum connects well with Christian Conservatives but all I can say is “Rick, get a ticket. Stand in line!” because Bachmann, Pawlenty, Paul, the (fast-fading) Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, and (the potential write-in who isn't participating Rick Perry) also appeal to that same group.

In 2012, the religious community in Iowa is taking a more public and visible political position with over 100 pastors coming out for Bachmann. That “faith based’ political blessing will be important to the large plurality in the GOP who see religious values and social conservative issues as very important. On the other hand, too close a religious connection and neglecting the USA economy and jobs will seriously hurt any GOP candidate in states where the religious community and social conservative issues are less important than Iowa.

Nick Ryan, who is advising Santorum, said this week, "It's also an opportunity for candidates who haven't caught on to show they are building something." Santorum, the former Pennsylvania Senator, has undertaken a three-week, 50-city tour of the state, dubbed the "Courage to Fight for American Values" tour. Though he can't afford paid advertising, his campaign is paying for Straw poll tickets.

Fun side fact: The event also generates quotations and position statements by GOP contenders that their opponents can use against them in the caucuses and primaries and the Democrats can weave into their negative ads against whoever is the GOP nominee in November!

I can attest to the fact that it’s a fun event, an “educational” experience for America’s voters, and what I'd call a “Political State Fair.” I only wish they’d do butter sculptures of each candidate and serve the favorite food of each contender deep-fried and on a stick as we do at the Iowa State fair. We all want to know “What is Michelle Bachmann’s favorite snack?!”

Since American politics is 80 percent hype and 20 percent serious “white papers” on issues it is a typical and valuable piece of political theater. Let the races begin!

Steffen Schmidt is professor of political science at Iowa State University, writes and blogs for the Des Moines Register, WNYC’s “It’s a Free Country,” and is chief political correspondent for Insideriowa.com. He is a frequent commentator on politics for Public Radio and CNN en Español.