Political Animal


August 13, 2011 1:40 PM Today in Ames

By Steve Benen

I’d prefer to think the Ames Straw Poll is a pointless publicity stunt, made important by bored reporters. We’re talking about an event that’s little more than a fundraiser, and this year, several candidates aren’t even participating, at least not officially. The media seems eager to give today’s gathering and results significance just for the sake of doing so, sort of like giving attention to a celebrity who’s famous for being famous.

And yet, today’s event in Iowa probably matters anyway.

Chris Cillizza explained that the Ames Straw Poll “has become a sort of proving ground for wanna-be Republican candidates, an early test of organizational heft and buzz.” That sounds about right. But as Nate Silver noted, Ames’s predictive track record also offers a reminder about why the political world cares as much as it does.

Since the event began in 1979, the candidate winning the Iowa caucus has placed first or second in the straw poll every time. Two successes in particular stand out. In 1979, George H.W. Bush won Ames despite polling at just 1 percent in a Des Moines Register survey — he went on to win the Iowa caucus. And in 2007 Mike Huckabee, in the low single digits in both state and national polls, finished second in the straw poll, the first tangible indicator of his upside in Iowa.

There have also been a couple of failures. Phil Gramm tied for first in Ames with Bob Dole in 1995, surprising Mr. Dole who had led Mr. Gramm in a Des Moines Register poll 57 percent to 11 percent. But Mr. Gramm’s candidacy flopped. And in 2007, the third- and fourth-place finishers in Ames, Sam Brownback and Tom Tancredo, dropped out before the Iowa caucuses.

But Ames does better than other indicators. Since 1979, its results have the predictive power to explain 58 percent of voting in the Iowa caucuses. This compares favorably to the most recent Des Moines Register poll conducted before the straw poll, which explains 39 percent of caucus results.

The sample size of the analysis is obviously limited, since the straw poll itself hasn’t been around that long. But the political takeaways from the straw poll become self-fulfilling — and the candidates know it.

It’s why Tim Pawlenty conceded this week that he’ll have to “reassess” the direction of his campaign if he fares poorly in Ames, while Rick Santorum suggested he might just quit if he’s not “in the top five” today.

So, who’ll come out on top? The scuttlebutt suggests the top contenders today are Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, and Tim Pawlenty. We can expect results to be read sometime after 6 p.m. eastern.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • jcricket on August 13, 2011 1:52 PM:

    The predicted winners of the Ames Straw Poll are Paul, Bachmann and Pawlenty? Yesh, those sound like real winners to me.

  • jcricket on August 13, 2011 1:54 PM:

    Heh. That was actually meant to be a 'yeah'. But, it does make sense in combination with the aforementioned.

  • c u n d gulag on August 13, 2011 2:27 PM:



    Hittin' the sauce a little early, eh?

    And I love how the press will treat this. How the fate of the Republican nation depends on less people than live in a NY City apartment complex.
    Of course, almost none of the people living in that NY complex would vote for anyone of the candidates.

  • mellowjohn on August 13, 2011 2:31 PM:

    if write-ins are allowed (are they?), i'd be willing to bet that either perry or palin or possibly both finish ahead of ex-senator frothymix.

  • jcricket on August 13, 2011 2:43 PM:

    Hittin' the sauce a little early, eh?

    Driven to it by hopeless politics. What can I mix for you?

  • KurtRex1453 on August 13, 2011 4:12 PM:

    Meanwhile Back in AZ: AZ Medicaid News: 100,000 people to be cut. "Judge Mark Brain's ruling means an enrollment cap for childless adults will remain in place, eliminating an estimated 110,000 people from the rolls in the coming year and freezing out an untold number of low-income Arizonans..." Read more: http://bit.ly/romEqH

  • Neil B on August 13, 2011 4:17 PM:

    If I can segue, since it will affect the whole race/s in various ways: The SEC is going to investigate Standard and Poors over the downgrade - the mistake, early leaking of it, etc. This is "explosive" stuff! Note that Eric Cantor had some options etc. per the downgrade, that is conflict of interest! (A local State Delegate here in VA just got 9.5 years jail time for COI!)

  • Doctor Biobrain on August 13, 2011 4:56 PM:

    The bigger issue is whether Iowa is of any predictive value at all. I mean, if Ames' best success is Bush in '79 and Huckabee, based on the idea that they didn't poll well nationally, then it'd seem Iowa isn't such an important win afterall. Because if they only pick winners that are already front runners, it's all pretty useless.

  • treetop on August 13, 2011 5:12 PM:

    Exactly, Dr. Biobrain. Ames helps predict the winner of the Iowa caucuses, which helps predict nothing.

  • fostert on August 13, 2011 6:12 PM:

    Regardless of history, this straw poll is meaningless. Perry will be the nominee. If anything, this is about the VP candidate.

  • Squeaky McCrinkle on August 13, 2011 8:13 PM:

    Yes, and could that be what what Bachmann's aiming for? Welcome to the next fucking nightmare.