Ames Straw Poll: The Complete Guide

The Ames Straw Poll serves a heroic purpose in our American lives. It gives the media something to fixate on in the critical month of August, when there is "nothing to write about" because all the powerful men and women have left Washington.

What is the Ames Straw Poll?

The short answer is that it is a straw poll, held by the Iowa Republican Party as a part of a fundraising dinner, in Ames, Iowa. Ames -- the home of Iowa State University (go Cyclones!) -- is located in Story County, which sits in the dead center of the state. This marks it as a symbolic location, the ideal place to officially kick off six months of state-wide political festivities. It will be held Saturday, August 13.

The Ames Straw Poll has been conducted every year there hasn't been an incumbent GOP president since 1979. That makes it sound like a more impressive tradition than it actually is -- there have only ever been five Ames Straw Polls.

More broadly, the Ames Straw Poll serves a heroic purpose in our American lives. It gives the media something to fixate on in the critical month of August, when reporters often bellyache about there being "nothing to write about" because all the powerful men and women they have access to have left Washington, leaving everyone with a slow news month. Left to their own devices, the media can cock things up royally. Last year, during the month of August, everyone was so bored that they treated a crackpot Islamophobic minister as a subject worthy of press conferences and hours of news coverage. That probably set interfaith relations in the United States back twenty years. Thanks, guys! Great work!

This year, the Ames Straw Poll provides reporters with a safe place to do some work that shouldn't be too mentally taxing. To cover the Ames Straw Poll, all you need to do is memorize a few names, be able to count, and know that the person with the most votes "wins" and the person with the least votes "loses."

Of course, they can still indulge in plenty of speculative talk about how someone who lost actually won, and how someone who won actually lost. But in this case, their addled ruminations won't actually result in any harm to humanity.

Erika Fry, writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, notes that the Ames Straw Poll is, for the press, a cyclical event in which the same sorts of stories happen every time out:

It's always a wonder the media takes the Iowa straw poll so seriously. And, funny, each straw poll, the media wonders this themselves! As sure as the quadrennial fundraiser itself, the dawn of each election season, begins with the media's dutiful puzzling about Iowa and its prominence in politics.

There will be the stories that ask things like "Is Iowa still relevant for Republicans?" (Given that these media outlets have already dispatched their political reporters to Iowa, there is an easy answer to the question.) Others will, perhaps wishfully, declare, (as early as October 2009) "Why Some 2012 Candidates Might Skip Iowa."

Early summer, or even late spring, the political press begins to buzz about the straw poll. Generally, it hedges its bets, by disparaging the contest, but reporting on it all the same (it is after all, the closest thing to something that matters). Anticipatory reports are laced with a rightful degree of cynicism and disdain and typically frame the contest as anything from silly ("an overblown country fair," writes Malcolm Andrew in the Los Angeles Times; "cunning weirdness" to George Will) to reliably unreliable to "organized bribery on a grand scale."

And then, when the August event is even closer at hand--a mere weeks away--there will be the long-form story, the straw poll takedown piece, in which a seasoned commentator takes up the baton and tries to write the article that will undress the emperor, shake the political media out from under the straw poll spell, and render the Iowa contest as unimportant as it should be.

She goes on to note that over 700 reporters will be credentialed to cover this straw poll, a new record. We will be at least three of them!

Who is participating in this year's poll?

1. Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann
2. Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain
3. Twitter account-haver Newt Gingrich
4. Former Utah Governor/Ambassador to China/Wizard keyboardist Jon Huntsman
5. Michigan Representative Thad McCotter
6. Texas Representative Ron Paul
7. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty
8. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney
9. Former Pennsylvania Senator/Jelly enthusiast Rick Santorum

So, the non-participants are Gary Johnson, Fred Karger, Buddy Roemer, and presumed future primary candidate Rick Perry.

Perry's presence, however, will be felt this weekend, as he's decided that he will be "making his intentions clear" about whether or not he plans to run for President. He has volunteers talking him up in Iowa, and Dave Weigel reports that he's made overtures to Iowa social conservative kingmaker Bob Vander Plaats.

Iowa political blogger O. Kay Henderson reports that observers on the ground believe Perry will "change the entire complexion" of the Poll, unless he doesn't, in which case he won't. Iowans at the Straw Poll are free to put Perry's name on the "write-in" line. They are also free to follow instructions from Stephen Colbert, and write in "Rick Parry."

What's up for grabs?

Whoever takes the top spot in the Ames Straw Poll will win one Complete News Cycle, and enjoy prominent placement in the political newshole until something else shiny happens. (Unless that winner is Ron Paul, in which case the media will quickly downplay its importance.)

The loser of the Ames Straw Poll will probably also enjoy prominent placement in the political newshole.

How does the Ames Straw Poll work?

It's useful to think of it like this: it's sort of a county fair, held outside Iowa State University's Hilton Coliseum, at which the participants in the poll are your hosts for the day. The candidates, with the help of their campaign staffs, are throwing the people of Iowa a big party, with food and entertainment and candidate pitches.

To that end, on June 24, the Iowa Republicans held an auction in which portions of the space for this "county fair" were sectioned off and sold to the highest bidder. The general consensus is that the portioned-off areas near the front of the space are the best locations. We have no idea why that is. Maybe Iowans just like making up their minds quickly, or they hate walking around. Either way, they are coveted.

Bidding for the spaces starts at $15,000. (Remember, every aspect of this is actually a fundraiser for the Iowa GOP.) The highest bid was submitted by Ron Paul. That's not that surprising: Ron Paul is a shrewd winner-of-straw-polls and timed his preseason "money-bombs" so he'd have plenty of scratch on hand to get the best possible spot. In this case, his $31,000 bid topped the field.

This year's auction featured a little bit of mystery in the form of an anonymous bidder, who showed up in Ames and refused to declare whose candidacy he was supporting. This caused the rest of the campaign operatives on hand to threaten a walkout. As it turns out, the secret operative was from the McCotter campaign, who ended up putting down $18,000 on a spot on the fairgrounds. (The Wall Street Journal described the bid as "a sum that suggests he wants to be taken seriously," which is difficult to square with the pointless cloak-and-dagger act that went on before the bid was made.)

After that, Bachmann, Cain, Pawlenty and Santorum all took spots. Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, though on the ballot, are skipping the event. Newt Gingrich had a representative at the auction who declined to make a bid on a space. A Gingrich spokesperson said, "We will work to turn people out, not because we have an air-conditioned tent, but because we have good ideas." But you know what? Having an air-conditioned tent in Iowa in August is a pretty good idea!

At any rate, it's better to put it like that then it is to say, "Oh, yeah, the entire campaign staff in Iowa recently quit, and we're up to our noses in campaign debt."

What happens once they've bought a space?

From there, the candidates each do their level best to show attendees a good time. They'll be serving food and providing a diverse array of fit-to-be-consumed-by-social-conservatives musical acts. (That means you probably shouldn't expect sets from Slipknot or Destrophy or hometown heroes The Envy Corps.) Ames' own The Nadas, however, will be among the performers. HuffPost's Alex Becker has the complete guide to all the musical acts that will be performing.

Also, Mike Huckabee will be hauling his bass guitar all around the grounds, slapping it for whoever wants to hear. Originally, people thought that he was providing musical accompaniment exclusively to Herman Cain, but he'll actually be jamming with Santorum and Pawlenty as well. No favoritism! The guy just likes playing bass!

Eventually, all of the candidates present at the event will get to address the throngs in a fifteen minute speech. The candidates get to choose their speaking slot, with the highest bidder in the Ames "land auction" getting first dibs. This year, the order will go like this: Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Thad McCotter, and Herman Cain. The monotony will be broken up with speeches from Iowa GOP luminaries like Terry Branstad, Chuck Grassley, and Steve King.

So, after all is said and done, how does the voting work?

Voters cast ballots for their favorite candidates, and they are totalled up and a winner is declared. Any attendee from the state of Iowa is eligible to cast a vote. You don't even need to be a Republican.

The candidates however, spend money to sign up supporters in advance. It's commonplace for campaigns to turn out support by buying tickets for people, and either providing transportation or paying for parking. Yes, that means that the Straw Poll is more of a test of a campaign's organizational strength than of the value of a candidate's ideas. It can be argued that all you've demonstrated, with an Ames win, is that you're good at busing people across Iowa. This sort of criticism is blunted somewhat by the fact that a bus ride does not constitute a binding contract to cast a vote, but let's get real: these campaigns wouldn't be buying free parking and food for people if they weren't more or less certain that it was going to translate into votes.

Still that sounds pretty straightforward. Has there ever been a voting controversy?

Oh, yes! Thanks for asking.

Up until 1995, anyone from anywhere could vote in the Ames Straw Poll. But after 1995, when the practice of busing out-of-state supporters in to Ames got out of hand, officials instituted the Iowa-only policy.

Also, in 1999, officials started using indelible ink to stamp the hands of people who had already voted, after widespread rumors of cheating surfaced in 1995 ("voters would have their hands stamped, run into the bathroom to wash the ink off, and go vote again").

In 2007, voters actually had to dip their thumbs in ink, just like in the Iraqi elections! They were also required to present their tickets and I.D. Because, you know, ACORN.

In 2007, supporters of Ron Paul raised a bit of hue and cry over the Ames Straw Poll's use of "easily rigged Diebold computers" to tally up the votes.

More generally, people complain about how better funded campaigns have all the advantages in the Ames Straw Poll, if they're not already complaining about how better funded campaigns can actually skip the event altogether, without consequence.

The conventional wisdom is that the Ames Straw Poll is a key test for the viability of a campaign. But does that stand up under scrutiny?

Results are actually quite mixed. Here's Dan Balz, tiring of the Ames hype in 2007:

In some years, the straw poll has helped to winnow the field of candidates, though not necessarily the longest of long shots. After the 1999 straw poll, Lamar Alexander and Dan Quayle decided their candidacies were done. Elizabeth Dole also joined them on the sidelines a bit later. But fringe candidates like Keyes and Gary Bauer continued in the race.

This year, the first casualty is former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, who said he needed a first or second-place showing to stay in the race. He finished sixth and mercifully took only 24 hours to quit the race. But weak finishes by others--Duncan Hunter being the most obvious example--may not thin the herd of candidates who crowd the stage at Republican debates.

Remember, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman will be on the ballot, but not participating. Regardless of Romney's result, it will not stand as a referendum of his viability. At the same time, we expect Huntsman to do poorly -- but we'd be daft to tell you afterwards that his poor showing in Ames "proved" his campaign isn't working. His campaign isn't working for lots of reasons!

How good is the Ames Straw Poll as a predictor of electoral success?

Well, if we're being charitable, we'd say that it's quite terrible at predicting future electoral success. There's only been one occasion where an Ames winner went on to run the table, and that was in 1999. George W. Bush won Ames, won the Iowa caucus, won the nomination, and won the White House.

The only other Ames winner to go on to win the GOP primary was Bob Dole in 1995, who tied Phil Gramm in the Ames Poll but went on to success in the Iowa caucus. Beyond that, George H.W. Bush won Ames and the Iowa caucus in 1979 (he lost the primary to Ronald Reagan). 1987 winner Pat Robertson and 2007 winner Mitt Romney went on to win...not much.

Again, however, there's only been five of these things, so it's pointless to make statistical conclusions. But if you're Mitt Romney or Rick Perry, you hope that Ames continues to demonstrate its lack of significance. (If you are Michele Bachmann, you hope that you win Ames and touch off a more oracular trend.)

Here's some real talk, from the National Review's Jim Geraghty: "Easily overlooked fact: 2007 Ames straw poll turnout was 14,302; Romney won with 4,516. Turnout for 2008 caucus was 119,118."

So, who has something on the line in the Ames Straw Poll?

Frankly, nobody should have anything on the line, here. Obviously, Bachmann, Paul, and Cain are three candidates who'll make great hay of an Ames win -- or even a strong showing -- should those results come to pass. Romney wouldn't sniff at a win, either, but he's got nothing invested in the process and will ride it out in any event. McCotter and Huntsman don't seem poised to bail if Ames doesn't go their way -- and neither should be expecting to do well. Santorum hasn't taken the hint that very few people would cast a vote for him in the GOP primary, yet, so why should he after this weekend? And Newt Gingrich is just sort of aimlessly ambling along in this process.

The only person who has something legitimate on the line at Ames is Tim Pawlenty. And to be honest with you, the only reason that Pawlenty has something on the line is because the political media decided that SOMEBODY had to have something on the line, and TPaw ended up getting chosen.

We're not going to sit here and tell you that Pawlenty's run the greatest campaign in the world so far, but it's far from the worst, and his polling has been somewhat revived recently. But now that he's been branded as the guy who needs to be successful in Ames to even survive, Pawlenty's had little choice to accept it. So Team TPaw has lately been engaged in a furious campaign of expectations management -- and the current spin is that Pawlenty hopes to finish better than sixth. (Remember: there will only be six balloted candidates on hand in Ames, and two of them are Thad McCotter and Rick Santorum.

Still, it's weird to think that Tim Pawlenty has to do something special in the middle of August of 2011, just so people will think he deserves to be a contender in the Iowa caucuses next year.

Who will win the Ames Straw Poll this year?

The more research you do, the more you encounter articles in which people say that the true winner of the Ames Straw Poll is Ames itself, because it stimulates the local economy and brings a lot of attention to Iowa. So we'll just leave it at that. We hope that the weather is nice, the barbecue is tasty, and that all of the attendees have a fantastic day out with their friends and neighbors.

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