Republican presidential hopefuls will gather on Saturday to bring in supporters from around the state in an attempt to win the Ames Straw Poll. The poll will draw candidates, thousands of Iowans and a media circus, but past straw polls suggest that it is not a strong predictor of Iowa caucus performance and has failed to significantly change public opinion on the race in Iowa.
Since the inception of the Ames Straw Poll in 1979, only three of five winners have gone on to finish first in the Iowa caucus -- and that includes one ultimate caucus winner, Bob Dole, who only tied in the straw poll.
Of course, the straw poll could have an impact on the race without ultimately predicting the winner. Polling from the 2008 campaign cycle, however, shows little evidence that the poll acts as an immediate springboard for candidates to secure a better position among the Iowa electorate.
One need look no further than to Mitt Romney's Ames Straw Poll victory just two years ago for evidence that winning the poll does not always mean future success. Romney's victory was followed by a disappointing defeat by Mike Huckabee, who had finished second in the poll.
At the time of Romney's win, he held what appeared to be a commanding lead in Iowa, according to polls compiled by Pollster.com (now Huffpost Pollster). Most polls at the time showed Romney garnering between 20 and 30 percent of Iowa voters and showed no other candidate with support above the mid-teens.
In the weeks after the straw poll, Romney saw a slight, but very temporary, bump in a few polls. Mid-August polls by Zogby for the conservative Newsmax magazine and by the bipartisan polling team Hart Research (D) and McLaughlin & Associates (R) for ONE anti-poverty campaign showed support for Romney moving into the low 30s. After that point, Romney's support returned to its previous level, rarely breaking the 30 percent mark in future polls.
But what about Huckabee, who finished in a surprising second place despite ranking in the single digits (below 5 percent) in polls before the Ames Straw Poll, and went on to win the caucus? Huckabee's numbers did see a slight increase around the time of the straw poll, from the low single digits through most of July, to the low teens in August and September. Importantly, though, at least one poll suggests that the rise began before Ames -- although the straw poll took place on Aug. 11, an ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted from July 26-31 showed Huckabee's numbers had increased to the high single digits (8 percent).
So why is it that the Ames Straw Poll, viewed as so important by many observers, doesn't necessarily live up to the hype?
For one thing, only a small portion of Iowans, or even eventual Iowa caucus-goers, will participate in the straw poll. In 2007, 14,302 Iowans participated, while almost 120,000 voters would go on to take part in the Republican caucus the following year. The previous Ames Straw Poll in 1999 saw higher turnout -- 23,685 voters participated, while the caucus itself saw less than 90,000.
Additionally, the structure of the straw poll, which encourages campaigns to pay for its supporters to travel and attend, is unlikely to produce an electorate that reflects the actual Republican electorate in Iowa.
So what impact does the Ames Straw Poll have? For a candidate like Huckabee, his surprisingly strong performance might simply have been an excuse to stay in the race at a time when most polls were showing him trailing the pack, giving his campaign time to earn the support that ultimately led to his caucus win. Perhaps that strong showing also helped him move some Iowa opinion leaders into his court, which could have had an impact later on as he slowly picked up steam through the last couple of months of 2007.
Still, don't expect to predict the ultimate outcome of the Iowa caucus based on the Ames Straw Poll. This year is likely to be no exception to previous ones, and the chaotic state of the race could make the straw poll even less telling. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is on the straw poll ballot, but is not actively campaigning or bringing in supporters. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is expected to announce he is entering the race on the same day as the straw poll. And Sarah Palin has continued to behave as though she might make a run, even showing up in Ames days before the poll. Voters can expect the straw poll to garner lots of media coverage, but it's unlikely to change the dynamics of the race.