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Bachmann wins Iowa straw poll. And that matters why?

"The most important, meaningless event in the political cycle."

After a troubled few weeks, Minnesota congresswoman Michelle Bachman has won the first big test ahead of the 2012 Republican primary contest, coming top of the Ames straw poll in Iowa. Given she only announced her decision to run two months ago, Bachmann appears to be the Republican candidate with momentum

Of the nearly 17,000 votes cast:

Michelle Bachmann took 4,823

Ron Paul took 4,671

Tim Pawlenty took 2,293

Rick Santorum took 1,657

Herman Cain took 1,456

Rick Perry took 718*

Mitt Romney took 567

Newt Gingrich took 385

Jon Huntsman took 69

Thaddeus McCotter took 35

(*Because he only announced his candidacy earlier the same day, Rick Perry wasn't officially on the ballot but still received 718 votes, more than Mitt Romney. In turn, the normally high-spending Romney chose to sit out this campaign. Ultimately, his camp will hope that Bachmann and Perry split the evangelical vote allowing their man to surge through the middle.)

But does any of this matter? After all, we are five months away from the primary season and some potential frontrunners have yet to announce their candidacy (Sarah Palin) or have only just done so (Perry).

Nate Silver over at New York Times Five Thirty Eight blog makes the case for Ames. He points out that on every occasion since this poll began in 1979, the candidate who came either first or second went on to win Iowa caucus the following year. He writes:

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.

Huckabee himself, the former Arkansas governor, describes the Ames straw poll as "the most important, meaningless event in the political cycle. Meaningless because it doesn't mean you get delegates. Important because if you are not here, you are also not getting attention."

Silver, meanwhile, has attempted to create a predictive model, taking into account the Ames result and poll ratings:

 

Nevertheless, we should treat the Ames result with caution for a couple of reasons at least. Firstly, it is not foolproof. It got things badly wrong in 1995 (Phil Gramm tied with Bob Dole) and in 2007 (Sam Brownback and Tom Tancredo achieved third and fourth finishes but dropped out before the caucus itself).

Secondly, a victory in the real Iowa caucus doesn't guarantee party nomination. Although the picture has improved since the mid-1990s, between 1984 and 1996 none of the Iowa winners across the two main parties went on to win the nomination.

Incidentally, Romney was the 2007 Ames winner. And look what good that did him.