What Is the Iowa Straw Poll?


In a little over a month, Republican presidential hopefuls will meet in Ames to square off in the Iowa Straw Poll. What the heck is a straw poll, and what do the results mean? Let’s take a look at some questions about the event that’s going to start dominating the political news soon.

What exactly is the Iowa Straw Poll?

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It’s sort of like a giant party crossed with a political popularity contest. Since 1979 Republicans have gathered in Ames the August before primary season gets rolling to cast votes for their favorite presidential hopefuls. (The straw poll is only held for election cycles in which there isn’t a GOP incumbent, so there wasn’t a shindig in 1983, 1991, or 2003.)

How do the candidates set up this party?

Here’s where things get really interesting.

This year’s poll will take place at Iowa State University’s Hilton Coliseum. The candidates will have giant air-conditioned tents and attractions set up around the arena to help lure in potential supporters. How do they figure out whose tent goes where? The candidates bid for the right to put their tents in the choicest spots closest to the arena. A spot costs at least $15,000, and this year Ron Paul took the most coveted real estate with a $31,000 bid.

What goes on in the tents?

Obviously, there’s some political rhetoric. There’s also a lot of food. And rides!

FairTax.org "Fairest Wheel" image courtesy of IowaPolitics.com

If every existing story about the Iowa Straw Poll is any indication, state law requires anyone describing the event in print to use the terms “carnival-like” or “county fair” at some point. The candidates and their supporters give speeches inside their air-conditioned tents, but they also hand out free chow, often barbecue, ice cream, and/or fried chicken.

Voters also get freebies; in 1999 Dan Quayle gave away bundles of raw corn. Pat Buchanan gave away potholders and bottles of barbecue sauce.

The tents aren’t just about food and stump speeches, though. There’s also entertainment. The county fair comparisons seem particularly apt here, as candidates often trot out musical acts that hit their commercial peaks decades earlier. For example, in 1999 Lamar Alexander trotted out Crystal “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” Gayle. Steve Forbes countered with Ronnie “Smoky Mountain Rain” Milsap.

How many convention delegates are at stake here?

Zero. While the straw poll gets a lot of media hype, the results aren’t binding and don’t directly help the winner get closer to the Republican presidential nomination.

So what’s the point of all this hoopla, then?

Image courtesy of IowaPolitics.com

The Iowa Straw Poll doesn’t help divvy up convention delegates, but it has its uses. The event is generally seen as a good early test for candidates’ organizational strength in the state. Since February’s Iowa caucuses will be one of the major early events in the road to next year’s Republican nomination, having a strong organization with traction in the state is important for hopeful candidates. A disappointing showing in the straw poll can raise serious concerns about a campaign’s future.

Where does all that cash go?

Directly into the coffers of the Republican Party of Iowa. Whatever you think of the predictive value of the poll or its significance in the election cycle, you’ve got to hand it to the state party for coming up with a heck of a fundraising idea. On top of those fat fees to set up a tent, the party also pulls in an admission fee from each voter who attends the poll. This year’s tickets go for $30.

Do voters really spend $30 apiece to vote in a non-binding straw poll?

Some voters would argue that $30 is a bargain price for free barbecue, fried chicken, and performances by obscure musical acts. Most voters would not, though. That’s why candidates often pick up all or most of the tab for their supporters’ tickets.

Candidates do more than just pay for tickets. Since voters have to actually show up in Ames to cast their ballots, candidates bus in their supporters to help stack the deck. When Steve Forbes threw gobs of money at the contest in 1999, he brought in 4,000 supporters on board 85 chartered buses in an effort to derail George W. Bush’s candidacy.

Does the straw poll do a good job of predicting the eventual winner of the Iowa caucuses?

Does a poor performance in the Iowa Straw Poll doom a candidate?

Not necessarily. While marginal candidates who struggle in the contest often decide to call it quits upon leaving Ames, other candidates have begun to dismiss the importance of the event. John McCain ignored the poll in 2007 and finished in 10th place with 0.7 percent of the vote, behind such luminaries as Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter. As you probably remember, he ended up winning the nomination anyway.

Mitt Romney is taking a similar tack this year. Romney threw millions of dollars at the 2007 straw poll and won an easy victory over second-place finisher Mike Huckabee, who went on to win the caucuses. This year, Romney has announced that he’s skipping the Iowa Straw Poll in favor of focusing his time and resources on the primaries and caucuses that count. Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman are bagging this year’s Iowa Straw Poll as well.

How reliable are the actual voting results?

If the reports are true, the Iowa Straw Poll results have historically been at least as reliable as those from your average student council election. Prior to 1999, voters didn’t even have to be from Iowa, so candidates could bus or fly their supporters in from out of state to tilt the odds in their favor.

Voting early and often was another possibility in earlier versions of the poll. Voters would get their hand stamped to indicate that they had voted, but some would just visit the bathroom, wash off the stamp, and cast a second ballot. (This trick was particularly prevalent in 1995.) Eventually organizers wised up to this chicanery and switched to indelible ink; starting in 2007 voters had to dip their thumbs in permanent ink to show they had cast their ballots.

Image courtesy of IowaPolitics.com

Even these anti-fraud measures haven’t totally quieted objections from candidates and their supporters. In 2007 Ron Paul supporters claimed that the voting machines used in the polls were rigged and cost their man a win.

Wait, where does the term "straw poll" come from, anyway?

PBS answered that question in 1999, citing William Safire's New Political Dictionary. In the 17th century, writer John Selden was credited with this quote: "Take a straw and throw it up into the air—you may see by that which way the wind is. More solid things do not show the complexion of the times so well."