Is Ames Straw Poll Meaningless? Or is it Iowa?

The Ames Straw Poll is like the first scrimmage of NFL training camp.

Every four years, a flurry of Ames Straw Poll Meaningless articles hit in a vain attempt to counteract the silly coverage of the silly event. CBS dutifully provides one this year; there will be others. But stathead Nate Silver is pushing back, explaining “Why Ames Actually Matters.”

It is easy to make fun of the Ames Straw Poll. It can’t exactly be described as democratic when you — or the candidate hoping to secure your vote — have to pay your way into the polls.

But 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.

He issues a whole lot of caveats but concludes that, in its short history, “Since 1979, its results have the predictive power to explain 58 percent of voting in the Iowa caucuses.”

That’s actually a reasonable point. Four years ago, in a post titled “Ames Straw Poll More Meaningless than Ever,” I chortled, “It’s not inconceivable that Mitt Romney will win the nomination, certainly. But I guarantee that Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Fred Thompson will finish with more delegates than Mike Huckabee, Tom Tancredo, and even Ron Paul.” That turned out to be wrong: Giuliani and Thompson flamed out in spectacular fashion and Huckabee actually finished with the second most delegates in the race, although only by virtue of staying in as a spoiler months after McCain’s nomination was inevitable. Romney was in second place when he dropped out in February, but saw the writing on the wall and figured there was no sense in spending his money in a hopeless cause.

Silver is right: Ames often identifies people who were barely showing up in the polls and who went on to win the Iowa Caucuses and, in some cases, to do quite well.

So, why does the Ames is meaningless meme persist? Because of two other points that I made in that post: “Winning the straw poll has little correlation with getting the nomination and minor candidates often do extraordinarily well.”

Yesterday, Michelle Bachmann easily won the straw poll and Ron Paul finished second. Judging from history, then, one of them is likely to win the Iowa Caucuses. But we’ve known for awhile that Bachmann would be formidable there, both because she’s from next-door Minnesota and because she has strong appeal to the sort of people who vote in caucuses. Paul remains a novelty candidate–if one whose novelty is wearing thin.

In 2007, Mitt Romney won in Ames. This go-round, he didn’t bother to invest his energy there and came in a distant seventh. Then again, the distance between him and Bachman was a measly 4256 votes. It’s just a joke of a process, decided almost entirely on who provides the most enticing food and entertainment.

Then again, as Steven Taylor wrote four years ago, the same is true of the Iowa Caucuses themselves, in which “because of the timing and intense media scrutiny given to this contest, a relative handful of the population of a small state can directly influence which candidates are perceived as electable and which candidates are perceived as damaged goods.” But even that perception is a media creation, at least on the GOP side. In contested elections (i.e., one where the party doesn’t have a sitting president eligible for re-election) the winner of the Iowa Republican Caucus almost never wins the nomination.  George H.W. Bush won in 1980; Ronald Reagan won the nomination. Bob Dole won in 1988; Bush won the nomination. John McCain won in 2000; George W. Bush won the nomination. Mike Huckabee won in 2008; McCain won the nomination. The only opposed winner who went on to be nominated was Bob Dole in 1996; he of course lost the general election.

For whatever reason, Iowa has been a much better predictor for Democrats, correctly picking the winner in 1976 (although “uncommitted” actually finished ahead of Jimmy Carter), 1984, 2000, 2004, and 2008. But even there it’s been spectacularly wrong. Michael Dukakis came in third (behind Dick Gephardt and Paul Simon) in 1988 and Bill Clinton finished an embarrassed fourth, with only 3% of the vote (behind Tom Harkin, Uncommitted, and Paul Tsongas) in 1992.

The Ames Straw poll is reasonably predictive of the Iowa Caucuses, which is not particularly predictive of the nomination. But, because they both come early in the process when the media is starving for something to cover, they get inordinate, undeserved attention. To use a sports analogy, Ames is like the first big scrimmage of training camp and the Caucuses are the first preseason game of the NFL season. A lot of ink is spilled on those, too, because fans are desperate for information about their teams. But teams frequently go undefeated in the preseason and miss the playoffs entirely, while it’s not unusual for Super Bowl winners to have had lousy preseasons. In both football and Iowa, then, what really matters is avoiding catastrophic injuries in order to survive to the games that count.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, Sports, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. PJ says:

    George H.W. Bush won in 1980; Ronald Reagan won the nomination. Bob Dole won in 1988; Bush won the nomination. John McCain won in 2000; George W. Bush won the nomination. Mike Huckabee won in 2008; McCain won the nomination.

    The Ames Straw Poll is a better at picking who’ll win the nomination the next time.
    George H.W. Bush won the poll in 1980, won the nomination in 1988.
    Bob Dole won the poll in 1988, won the nomination in 1992.
    John McCain won the poll in 2000, won the nomination in 2008.

    Huckabee shouldn’t have thrown in the towel, he would obviously have won the nomination this time based on his straw poll win in 2008.
    And good news for Bachmann, she will win the nomination in 2016 or 2020.
    (Looks like the GOP will go bat-shit crazy in 2016.)

  2. Hello World! says:

    Can we just take down this post now? Any talk of MB getting the nomination ever scares the heck out of me.

  3. @James: I was thinking about writing a post along these same lines. The Silver analysis is quite interesting and makes one rethink the initial reaction to treat the whole thing as a joke. Although, not surprisingly, I agree that Iowa itself is the problem.

    Fundamentally, the Iowa process (from start to finish) isn’t especially democratic or representative (and I find that to be a real problem).

  4. PD Shaw says:

    If I was voting in this straw poll, I think I would not necessarily vote for my favorite candidate, nor the one most likely to win. I think I would vote for the candidate that deserves more attention going forward. I think that’s a more reasonable expectation of what such a small, early poll can do and I wonder how many participants think along this line.

  5. john personna says:

    This is a woman who would have cratered the US economy (link):

    FERRECHIO: Thank you. Congresswoman Bachmann, turning to you, you voted against the debt ceiling increase deal and you voted against the Republicans’ “cut, cap and balance” bill. You insisted the country was not at risk of default. If you had your way, the debt ceiling would not have been raised. What do you say to analysts who insist that Americans’ investments, their 401(k)s, their college funds would have been far worse off today?

    BACHMANN: It — it was very important that we not raise the debt ceiling, because — consider what happened. The Congress gave Barack Obama a blank check for $2.4 trillion. What did the American people get in return? $21 billion in illusory cuts.

    So from the time I’ve been in Congress, we’ve gone from $8.67 trillion in debt to now almost double, to $16.7 trillion. This is madness. I’ve been all across Iowa. People are almost unanimous: Do not raise the debt ceiling. That was the right thing to do. The worst thing that you can do is continue to borrow money and spend money that we don’t have.

    If that is what Ames Republicans want the world to believe they believe … I shudder.

    (Don’t you love “blank check for $2.4 trillion”? Pure crazy.)

  6. RW Rogers says:

    I hope Silver is right. As the Republican Party appears intent on committing suicide, I’m strongly in favor of them doing it as soon as possible and in the most spectacular fashion imaginable. Although unlikely, Michelle Bachmann as Presidential or Vice Presidential nominee would virtually guarantee a swift end. Failing that, while Ron Paul does have a loyal and vocal bunch of followers (see below, no doubt), they won’t add up to much at the ballot box, either.

  7. James Joyner says:

    @Hello World!: I still think Bachmann has next to zero chance of getting the nomination. If she does, myself and a whole lot of people who’ve always voted Republican won’t be voting for her. (Which, in the end, is why I think she has next to zero chance of getting the nomination. There’s a reason the Establishment candidate almost always wins in the end.)

    @RW Rogers: Silver doesn’t claim that the Straw Poll winner is likely to be the nominee, much less president. He merely points out that one of the top two finishers often wins the Iowa Caucus.

    The last time the GOP nominated an out-of-mainstream ideologue of this nature was before I was born. Goldwater got absolutely creamed. But the Establishment Nixon won the presidency four years later. One bad nomination is not the death knell of a longstanding party.

  8. MBunge says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Fundamentally, the Iowa process (from start to finish) isn’t especially democratic or representative (and I find that to be a real problem).

    What could be more democratic or representative than the referendum process in California? It’s about as close to one person, one vote direct democracy as exists…and how has that worked out? And the move to direct election of U.S. Senators was certainly a step forward for representative democracy, but it certainly was a huuuuuuuuge step backward for federalism and I’m not sure you can argue the result has been better Senators and a better Senate.


  9. RW Rogers says:

    @James Joyner:

    I really do understand/appreciate everything you said, James. FWIW, unlike you, I was alive when Goldwater was nominated. Whether the GOP nominates an ideologue like Bachmann or a chameleon like Romney, the sad fact remains that the GOP is currently running for the cliff in full gallop and appears to be intent on taking the rest of the nation with it. There are quite a few life-long Republicans of different generations in my family. Not a single one of them is interested in taking that plunge. One or two might vote for Romney in the end, offsetting the one or two currently angry enough to vote for the incumbent, but most have no intention of voting for anyone, least of all one of midgets currently parading across the GOP center-stage.

  10. @James Joyner:

    The last time the GOP nominated an out-of-mainstream ideologue of this nature was before I was born. Goldwater got absolutely creamed.

    I think it’s bad to try to draw lessons about campaigning based on the 1964 election. Regardless of who won the Republican nomination, it was probably going to be a landslide, just because the country is unlikely to vote to go through three presidents in a year.