Ames Matters, But What If Ron Paul Wins?

Time for the spinning of the straw poll results to begin.

Nate Silver pushes back against the conventional wisdom among the punditocracy, which I’ve repeated myself, that the Ames Straw Poll doesn’t really matter that much:

Ames has a pretty good predictive track record. 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

Silver’s analysis finds, in fact, that the Ames Straw Poll “has the predictive power to explain 58% of voting” in the subsequent Iowa Caucuses. By comparison, the Des Moines Register Poll, the premier political poll in the Hawkeye State, only explains 39% of the caucus votes, and national polls only have a 34% success rate.  (Silver explains his analysis at the link, so I will direct you there for that)

Silver cautions that the Ames Straw poll has only been conducted since 1979, meaning that the precedents are relatively small for statistical purpose, meaning that it’s entirely possible that they could be broken. The most important factor that Silver’s analysis can’t predict, he notes, is how the media analyzes the results of the straw poll, a factor that may become rather important given the fact that Ron Paul is expected to do very well today, if not win the straw poll outright:

Texas Rep. Ron Paul has long been regarded as a somewhat entertaining distraction in his two presidential races over the past four years.

But, on the eve of the Ames Straw Poll, the first major organizing test of the 2012 Republican presidential race, there is a strain of thinking that Paul could seriously challenge the likes of Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty for supremacy on Saturday.

“He’s got the supporter passion of a Bachmann with the organization of a Pawlenty,” said one senior Iowa Republican strategist unaffiliated with any of the campaigns. “He builds on 2007 and the caucus last time, and I think he can turn out the 3,000 votes he needs to win.”

It’s not at all an implausible outcome. The most important factor for winning at Ames is turnout, and Ron Paul’s supporters have shown a tremendous amount of energy and a willingness to turnout for their guy at straw poll events in the past. That in and of itself seems assured to give him a spot on the final results board that is sure to embarrass at least one of his opponents. However, a Ron Paul victory at Ames is likely to be quickly discounted:

For the Libertarian-leaning Paul, even a poll victory, which some pundits predict, may feel a little like losing. If history is a guide, Paul still won’t be treated as a serious threat to potential front-runners like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann or Perry, who will throw his hat in the ring today and is not on the straw poll ballot.

“If Romney or Bachmann wins tomorrow, [the national media] will make a big deal about it,” Dr. Robert Paul, Ron Paul’s son, said Friday. “If my dad wins, they won’t.” Robert Paul lives in Fort Worth and works in Benbrook.

Four years ago, Romney won the Iowa straw poll, and Ron Paul finished fifth.

For several years, Paul, 75, has attracted the admiration of a relatively small but intensely passionate group of supporters from across the country. His 2008 White House run caught attention for raising tens of millions of dollars, often in one-day “money bomb” events. Yet his efforts for broader support have often met with skepticism from pundits and the GOP establishment.

Whereas backers of other candidates at today’s poll may represent a larger segment of Iowa’s Republican voters, Paul’s supporters tend to be assessed under a different formula, said Mark Jones, political science chairman at Rice University.

“His supporters are viewed as more ideological … and a small diehard group instead of representative of the larger population,” Jones said.


On Friday, former Alaska Gov. and possible presidential candidate Sarah Palin appeared to be trying to pre-emptively dampen any momentum Paul might gain from a win today.

She told the Des Moines Register, “I think that Ron Paul still has a great chance of winning the straw poll because maybe the public doesn’t always understand how these straw polls work. … It’s not always the telltale sign of what the electorate is feeling.”

I tend to agree with Jones and, yes, even Palin here. As much as I’d enjoy seeing the rest of the GOP squirming as Ron Paul enjoys the benefits of the media coverage that a victory at Ames would garner for him, it’s unlikely that his ability to bring energetic supporters to an event in Iowa in August will translate in to wider support in the GOP. On the issues of substances, Paul is still pretty far out of step with the rest of the GOP and even the Tea Party movement, and his concentration on issues like the Gold Standard and the Federal Reserve tends to lead some people to label him something of a kook. Add to that the fact that his supporters seem to combine their enthusiasm and political naiviete with behavior that turns people off, and it’s pretty unlikely that a victory at Ames would suddenly vault Paul into the top tier of candidates.

That’s not to say that a Paul victory won’t have an impact on the race, though. It’s likely to make it difficult for under-performing candidates to make the argument that they are still viable (“If you can’t beat Ron Paul……….”), and it would probably lead voters to concentrate on what everyone already seems to agree are now the top two candidates in the race, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry.

Voting has already begun in the straw poll, and we’ll likely know the results sometime after 6pm Eastern tonight. Then, the spinning will begin.



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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Terrye says:

    The thing about Ames is that money is involved…people actually pay to vote…or the candidates do and then they get their people to vote. It is $30 a vote. Iowa makes a lot of money off of this. But in the end it represents very few people.

  2. Ron Beasley says:

    Perry is entering the race as we speak and that alone will make Ames irrelevant.

  3. Ben Wolf says:

    Sad that Paul, by far the most palatable choice among Republican nominees, doesn’t have a realistic shot. Even on issues where I strongly disagree with him I have the sense he can be reasoned with. Perry and Bachmann would simply call those who disagree with them the devil and hit them with a prayer cloth.

  4. Cynic in NY says:

    If Paul wins, conservatives will go into their “blame Libertarians” game just like they did at CPAC. The fact that Statist Health Care Romney is considered a front runner only shows that Republicans and Conservatives don’t want actual liberty. They just want a scumbag who just looks better to Obama, when in fact they are about the same. Blue State Socialism doesn’t have much of a difference from Red State Fascism.

  5. superdestroyer says:

    Considering that none of the Republican candidates have any change of beating President Obama, the entire Republican primary season is pointless.

    The only relevant election is whether the Democrats regain control of the U.S. House. Everything else is pointless to talk about.

    Maybe by 2016 the MSM will realize that the Republicans are irrelevant and the networks, etc will be feel compelled to cover stupid events like the Ames straw vote since the Republican Primaries will be irrelevant.

  6. JohnMcC says:

    Outlandish ideas and a small cadre of ideologue supporters are the characteristics that make Mr Paul a threat in the ‘straw poll’ but irrelevant in the nat’l election, eh? But outlandish ideas and a large cadre of ideologue supporters make Michele Bachmann….what? A stalking horse for Gov Perry? A serious candidate? The high water mark of the TeaParty?

    We have been cursed to live in ‘interesting times’.

  7. A voice from another precinct says:

    @Ben Wolf: “Sad that Paul, by far the most palatable choice among Republican nominees…”

    In that one phrase (about which I will disagree with you BTW), you have summed up the problem that the GOP faces in the coming election. As terrible as Obama may be and as lousy as the economy is, Obama is still more palatable than “by far the most palatable choice among…”