AMES, Iowa — There's a hefty dose of circus mixed with deadly serious politics in the Iowa Republican straw poll.
The event Saturday will mark the first time Republicans in Iowa indicate publicly whom they want as their 2012 presidential nominee. It's a test vote of sorts that comes months before the precinct caucuses that kick off the party's presidential nomination fight. And it could send an early signal about who is showing potential in the race – or it could mean nothing at all.
Despite its name, however, the "straw poll" is not a poll at all – and it's certainly not scientific.
Rather, it's a fundraiser for the state GOP and a daylong political festival at Iowa State University. Presidential candidates make speeches and try to lure the most supporters to the event – with promises of food, live music and, sometimes, a lift to the site – in hopes of getting their backing in a nonbinding vote. The labor-intensive exercise gives candidates a chance to test their campaign operations and turn out supporters ahead of the winter caucuses.
"It's the first test of organizational strength," said Steve Scheffler, a Republican who leads the Iowa Christian Alliance.
Past results have a mixed record of accurately predicting who is going to win the winter caucuses, much less who is heading to the White House.
Four years ago, John McCain didn't compete in the August event but he ended up winning the GOP nomination. At the same time, Mike Huckabee's surprising second-place showing demonstrated strength that spurred him on to a caucus victory.
"Huckabee was almost dead until the straw poll," said former Iowa Republican Chairman Richard Schwarm.
The one time the straw poll was a solid predictor was in the 2000 election cycle, when George W. Bush won the straw poll, the Iowa caucuses and the White House. His father won the straw poll and the caucuses in the 1980 election cycle but lost the nomination to Ronald Reagan.
It almost always winnows the field.
Tommy Thompson dropped from the race a day after finishing sixth in the 2008 election cycle. Eight years earlier, Elizabeth Dole finished a disappointing third and was out of the race by October. Dan Quayle finished eighth that year and was gone by the next month.
The straw poll dates back to 1980 and is really a pretty simple deal. Anyone who can pay $30 and wants to head to the Iowa State University campus can vote. Participants don't need to be Republicans but they do have to be residents of the state or students attending school in Iowa and they have to be 18 years old. Those voting – on machines the state GOP rented – must have identification. They'll be marked with indelible ink after voting. Campaigns can oversee the counting.
The results are not indicative of the views of Iowa voters overall. Instead of using a random sample, the event draws on motivated supporters, with the results highlighting which campaigns have the money and manpower to draw out supporters.
Republicans refuse to say how many tickets they'll sell or how much they plan to make, but the amount will be significant. More than 14,300 people showed up for the straw poll four years ago, down from the 23,000 who voted four years before that.
Competing in the poll are Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former pizza chain executive Herman Cain, Michigan Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are not actively competing, though both are on the ballot.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, poised to enter the race in the coming days, won't be on the ballot, though there's a write-in option and efforts by volunteers to make sure he's well represented.
Six of the candidates have reserved space at the site and planned to erect tents to entertain and feed supporters. Renting the space cost at least $15,000, and Paul paid the most, at $31,000.
Pawlenty's tent will feature a Christian rock band as well as local favorites the Nadas. He'll serve up barbecue – the favored food at the event – and Dairy Queen Blizzards for dessert.
"I'm looking forward to enjoying an afternoon of great music and food with family, friends and supporters," said Pawlenty.
Bachmann also is serving up food along with country music star Randy Travis for entertainment.
"I will guarantee you (that) you will have the time of your life," Bachmann told backers at one campaign event.
Paul will bring in his son, newly elected Sen. Rand Paul, and plans to have live bands as well as an inflatable slide and dunk tanks to keep children entertained.
A carnival-like atmosphere is certain.