Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Ames Straw Poll: Signifying Nothing.

In a few hours the Ames Straw Poll will be over and it will signify nothing.

But pundits and politicians will try to discern meaning out a relatively meaningless event.

Let us be clear. This “straw poll” is not a legitimate poll nor is it an actual part of the political primary system. It is one thing and one thing only: a fund raiser for the Republican Party.

Anyone who is 18 and a resident of Iowa can attend but they have to pay an entrance fee of $35 to be allowed to vote. Candidates each purchase hundreds of passes which they hand out to individuals they hope will vote for them.

At best this exercise does not reveal who has the most public support. It may tell you something about the fanaticism of their supporters but nothing about how many there are.

The actual Iowa caucuses are in January and they have meaning. The candidates know it has no meaning except as a PR exercise. Mitt Romney is putting a lot into it. He may do well. Though some flyers have been distributed suggestion that Ron Paul supporters use Romney’s money to attend and then vote for Paul

Paul, who has very little actual public support in any real opinion poll, does have the most rabid followers around. They are more likely to turn out that the supporters of other candidates. And while they are more enthusiastic they are also incredibly naive and most likely to misinterpret the results of the poll.

If Paul gets above the 1 to 2% he manages in representative polls they will interpret this to mean the other polls were wrong. And given the conspiratorial bent of many of them they will proclaim this proves the media was plotting to destroy Paul and manipulate polls.

The real elections don’t start until January. At those polls it won’t be the most enthusiastic who can spam a poll, not easily. It will be large sampling of cross section of voters. At this point the enthusiasm of the supporters will have little impact.

By the end of January the field will be pretty obviously narrowed. A few marginal candidates will try to hold out until Super Tuesday in February, hoping for a miracle to resurrect their dying campaigns.

Candidates with lots of support don’t need to worry about this straw poll very much. It is those candidates without support who want to use this fund raiser to create the illusion that they do have it. Then then hope the illusion will turn into reality later.

Pat Robertson won in 1987. His band of fanatical fundamentalists were very dedicated to his cause. But his campaign went nowhere. In 1979 Ronald Reagan lost the poll. But he won the nomination and the presidency.

With a little effort a nobody can do relatively well in this poll and go absolutely nowhere afterwards. Consider that in 1999 Gary Bauer got 9% of the votes, Lamar Alexander got 6%, even Alan Keyes got 5%.

I would think Mr. Paul will need to exceed 10% of the vote. Below that, under ideal circumstances for him, would indicate his support is very low indeed. As we’ve seen 10% in the straw poll doesn’t mean 10% general support among voters or even among Republicans.

But the truth remains that we will only start to see the true measure of support for any of the candidates come January. One by one they will start dropping out and the percentage of the lead candidate will probably grow.

The true oddity of this event is that we are watching grown men scrambling to lead the Republican Party into the dustbin. This is akin to watching individuals fighting over who will be captain of the Titanic, after it hit the iceberg.