Iowa Straw Poll: Questions and Answers

The Iowa Straw Poll, one of the most watched political events of the summer, will take place this Saturday. What is it and why does it matter? Here are some answers.

What is a straw poll?

A straw poll is an election with non-binding results. It is used to gauge opinion on a candidate or issue before the official (votes are cast) results. The phrase originates from the act of tossing a piece of straw into the air to see which way the wind blows it.

What is the Iowa Straw Poll?

Organized by the Iowa Republican Party, the Iowa Straw Poll has been used since 1979 in elections where there was more than one Republican candidate. Republicans from all over Iowa travel to Ames to participate in the event. Many of the presidential candidates will have booths at the event, along with vendors, media outlets and advocacy organizations. The atmosphere has been compared to that of a state fair. Only Iowa residents who will be 18 years old, the legal voting age, before the November 2012 election are allowed to participate in the poll.

Why is Iowa important?

Iowa is the first caucus in the nation for the political party's presidential nomination contest. Caucus elections are different than primary elections. A primary is like a general election in which everyone simply shows up at their voting location and casts their ballot. In caucuses, on the other hand, participants meet for several hours and debate with each other about which candidate to support. Several ballots are cast until the field is narrowed to a single candidate. Candidates who do well at mobilizing loyal supporters perform well in caucus elections.

Since Iowa is the first caucus in the nation, candidates with low levels of name recognition can sometimes gain national attention by performing well in Iowa. When Jimmy Carter won the Iowa caucus in 1980, it helped propel him to winning the nomination, and eventually the presidency. In 2006, Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee were two lesser-known candidates who won the Iowa caucus. Obama went on to win the Democratic nomination and the presidency. Huckabee finished in second place for the Republican nomination behind John McCain.

Does the straw poll really matter?

There have been five Iowa straw polls since 1979. Twice the straw poll determined the winner of the Republican nomination-Bob Dole in 1995 and George W. Bush in 1999. Other winners were George H. W. Bush (1979), Pat Robertson (1987), Phil Gramm (tied with Dole, 1995), and Mitt Romney (2007).

While the straw poll will not determine the winner of the nomination, it is an early indicator of the level of excitement a candidate is able to generate and a candidate's ability to mobilize voters. Straw poll voters travel to Ames and spend the whole day, sometimes the whole weekend, there. A willingness to make the journey shows enthusiasm for a candidate. An ability to mobilize loyal supporters that will voluntarily work for your campaign is one among many of the characteristics of a good candidate.

Which candidate has the most to lose?

Michele Bachmann. The congresswoman from Minnesota is currently leading in the polls and has strong support among social conservatives and the Tea Party, both important groups in Iowa. A poor showing in a state suitable to her strengths would indicate that she has little chance of winning the nomination.

For which candidate does the straw poll matter the least?

Mitt Romney. The former governor of Massachusetts spent a lot of his campaign funds to win the Iowa Straw Poll in 2005. It turned out to be a waste of resources. He ended up losing the Iowa caucus to Huckabee. Determined to not make the same mistake again, Romney is not participating in the poll this year and, instead, is focusing on winning the New Hampshire primary, the first primary in the nation.

Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson and former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer are also not participating in the Iowa Straw Poll.

Which candidate has the most to gain?

Everyone else. Romney and Bachmann are leading in the polls and with Gov. Rick Perry (Texas) set to get in the race (see below), everyone else is scrambling just to get some media attention. A strong showing in Iowa would aid this effort. These candidates are former Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Herman Cain, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (Ga.), former Utah Governor and Ambassador Jon Huntsman, Rep. Thad McCotter (Mich.), Rep. Ron Paul (Texas), former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, and former Senator Rick Santorum (Penn.).

What is Rick Perry up to?

He's running for president. On Wednesday, the day of a televised debate in Iowa, a Perry spokesperson said that Perry would announce his intent to run for president on Saturday. The timing is not coincidental. Both announcements (the announcement that there will be an announcement, and the actual announcement) are designed to steal some of the spotlight, and potential momentum, from the other candidates. Any time spent by the media to report that there will be an announcement on Saturday, or report on the announcement again after it happens on Saturday, is time that will not be spent talking about the other candidates.

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