Early Primary/Straw Polls Don't Matter

The political press is eagerly awaiting the results of the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference, which is supposed to serve as a barometer of the presidential candidate preferences of conservative elites. Unfortunately, if you look at CPAC's track record, the straw poll is not a meaningful predictor of eventual GOP presidential nominees. If we focus on straw polls one or more years before a presidential election (like this one), here are the winners (verified from Wikipedia):

  • 1986: Jack Kemp

  • 1987: Jack Kemp
  • 1993: Jack Kemp
  • 1995: Phil Gramm
  • 1998: Steve Forbes
  • 1999: Gary Bauer
  • 2005: Rudy Giuliani
  • 2006: George Allen
  • 2007: Mitt Romney
  • 2009: Mitt Romney
  • 2010: Ron Paul
  • Do you see any presidential nominees on there? Me neither. Even in presidential election years, the eventual nominee only won the CPAC straw poll in two of four cases where there was a contested primary (correct: 1980, 2000; incorrect: 1976, 2008). The same pattern is likely to apply this year. Ron Paul is reportedly favored to win this year, and he will almost surely not be the Republican nominee.

    The horse race polls of Republican presidential candidates that the media has been hyping (latest example here) are similarly useless at this stage in the game. Just as a reminder, consider who was leading in horse race polls at a comparable stage in the election cycle for parties who didn't have an incumbent president running for re-election:

    • January 1979 (GOP): Gerald Ford (Cambridge Reports)

  • January 1983 (Dem): Walter Mondale (Harris)
  • January 1987 (Dem): Gary Hart (CBS/NYT)
  • January 1987 (GOP): George H.W. Bush (CBS/NYT)
  • September 1991 (Dem): Jerry Brown (ABC; no earlier polls available)
  • January 1995 (GOP): Bob Dole (CBS)
  • January 1999 (GOP): George W. Bush (Time/CNN)
  • January 1999 (Dem): Al Gore (Time/CNN)
  • January 2003 (Dem): Joe Lieberman (Gallup/CNN/USA Today)
  • February 2007 (Dem): Hillary Clinton (Quinnipiac; no earlier polls available)
  • January 2007 (GOP): Rudy Giuliani (Fox)
  • If we exclude sitting vice presidents (George H.W. Bush, Al Gore) and the vice president from the previous administration (Walter Mondale), the horse race polls only correctly predict the nominee two times out of eight (Bob Dole and George W. Bush). At this point in the election cycle, the preferences that matter are those of the activists, elected officials, donors, and party elites who take part in the so-called "invisible primary." Media hype of public opinion surveys and straw polls only serves to obscure where the meaningful action is taking place.