I’d prefer to think the Ames Straw Poll is a pointless publicity stunt, made important by bored reporters. We’re talking about an event that’s little more than a fundraiser, and this year, several candidates aren’t even participating, at least not officially. The media seems eager to give today’s gathering and results significance just for the sake of doing so, sort of like giving attention to a celebrity who’s famous for being famous.
And yet, today’s event in Iowa probably matters anyway.
Chris Cillizza explained that the Ames Straw Poll “has become a sort of proving ground for wanna-be Republican candidates, an early test of organizational heft and buzz.” That sounds about right. But as Nate Silver noted, Ames’s predictive track record also offers a reminder about why the political world cares as much as it does.
Since the event began in 1979, the candidate winning the Iowa caucus has placed first or second in the straw poll every time. 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.
There have also been a couple of failures. Phil Gramm tied for first in Ames with Bob Dole in 1995, surprising Mr. Dole who had led Mr. Gramm in a Des Moines Register poll 57 percent to 11 percent. But Mr. Gramm’s candidacy flopped. And in 2007, the third- and fourth-place finishers in Ames, Sam Brownback and Tom Tancredo, dropped out before the Iowa caucuses.
But Ames does better than other indicators. Since 1979, its results have the predictive power to explain 58 percent of voting in the Iowa caucuses. This compares favorably to the most recent Des Moines Register poll conducted before the straw poll, which explains 39 percent of caucus results.
The sample size of the analysis is obviously limited, since the straw poll itself hasn’t been around that long. But the political takeaways from the straw poll become self-fulfilling — and the candidates know it.
It’s why Tim Pawlenty conceded this week that he’ll have to “reassess” the direction of his campaign if he fares poorly in Ames, while Rick Santorum suggested he might just quit if he’s not “in the top five” today.
So, who’ll come out on top? The scuttlebutt suggests the top contenders today are Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, and Tim Pawlenty. We can expect results to be read sometime after 6 p.m. eastern.