Much Ado About a Straw Poll

So now we know -- Michele Bachmann has bested Ron Paul by 152 votes to win the Iowa straw poll. Just over 16,000 Iowans cast votes, a bit more than 1% of the number of Iowans who voted in the 2008 presidential election, and less than 20% of the number who will likely vote in the Iowa GOP caucuses in early 2012.

Does the result mean much? In terms of determining the eventual GOP nominee, I think not. But it will hasten the departure from the race of some of the long-shot candidates.

Bachmann has likely reached the high point of her campaign. With Rick Perry’s entrance in the race on Saturday with his announcement in South Carolina, the second primary state, Bachmann’s early dominance of the right side of the GOP field will now get a serious challenge.

Tim Pawlenty, who invested a significant portion of his small campaign war chest into the straw poll, finished a distant third. Pawlenty had tried to straddle both the establishment side of the race (where Mitt Romney has a clear lead) and the right side, and failed at both. Candidates who never had a serious chance at the nomination -- Rick Santorum and Herman Cain -- each won about 10% of the straw poll vote, finishing 4th and 5th, respectively. The two of them, as well as Pawlenty, are unlikely to find many donors with outstretched hands at this point.

The straw poll is arguably more of a carnival than a meaningful political barometer. Candidates buy tickets and give them to their supporters. The candidates often shepherd these supporters to Ames for the straw poll. Voters need only be 16-and-a-half years of age, and reside in Iowa, and do not have to be registered Republicans. Even the residency requirement is stretched to allow non-residents who attend Iowa colleges to participate. The cross section of voters does not match the geographical distribution of GOP voters in the state, given the location of Ames in eastern Iowa. Some candidates, like Romney and Newt Gingrich, had their name on the ballot but made no real effort in Ames. Rick Perry did not have his name on the ballot but received over 700 write-in votes, 200 more than Romney received.

Some Iowa Republicans may resent the fact that Perry chose the day of the straw poll to make his formal announcement, detracting some from the event. It would be hard to argue, however, that the straw poll provides much of a forecasting tool for how the race will proceed from this point on. Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee finished one-two in the straw poll in 2007, but then reversed order in the Iowa caucuses in January 2008. John McCain, who barely competed in Iowa, wound up the nominee. Pat Robertson won the straw poll in 1987; Bob Dole then won the Iowa caucuses, but George H. W. Bush received the GOP nomination. In 1979-1980, George H. W. Bush won both the straw poll and the Iowa caucuses, but Ronald Reagan won the nomination.

The two Republicans in the field who have the most support in national polls are Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. Perry’s numbers are likely to go up now that he is formally in the race. Bachmann may get a bit of a bounce from winning the straw poll, but it is hard to see where she will be competitive beyond Iowa in 2008. She has devoted most of her time to the state, was born there, and now resides in neighboring Minnesota. Her campaign in the state is reminiscent of John Edwards' do-or-die effort in Iowa in 2007-2008, when he tried to break through against the two media darlings who were sucking up all the oxygen (and campaign cash) -- Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.