Saturday, July 28, 2007

What the heck is a straw poll, anyway?

This just in:

Today, Ron Paul received more votes in the Georgetown County (South Carolina) Republican Party presidential primary straw poll than did Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. Congressman Paul was second in the poll. Fred Thompson placed first.

According to a press release issued today by Georgetown County Republican Chairman Tom Swatzel, there were 223 total votes cast.

While this is slightly more substantial than a reference to the number of Twitter mentions or whatever, this serves as a reminder that we are in the political silly season (which will extend for the next several months) where "straw polls" take on an overwhelming importance.

Straw polls have been around for a while, well before Jimmy Carter's day. In fact, the first straw poll, conducted in 1824, was an unusual one:

One thing Pennsylvania is not known for, but should be, is the place where political polling started -- way back in 1824. In fact, it was the Harrisburg Pennsylvanian newspaper that is widely acknowledged to have conducted and then to have published a presidential preference poll. Strangely enough, the poll was conducted not in Pennsylvania but in Delaware.

The newspaper surveyed groups of citizens in Wilmington during July 1824, asking about their presidential favorites....The poll revealed military hero Andrew Jackson with a commanding 70 percent lead (335 votes) over Secretary of State John Quincy Adams (23 percent), Speaker of the House Henry Clay (four percent) and William Crawford (2 percent).

The newspaper's forecast of the Jackson popular vote victory was accurate if somewhat misleading. General Jackson did go on to win the popular vote in the fall election, beating his closest opponent, Adams, by 77,000 votes. But as Al Gore can now attest, winning the most popular vote isn't always enough in presidential elections. None of the candidates won a majority of electoral votes; hence the election was thrown into the House of Representatives -- where Jackson eventually lost to John Quincy Adams.

The type of poll conducted by the Harrisburg Pennsylvanian is known as a "straw poll" or more formally as a non-probability sample. Today, we are more familiar with polls that use statistically sound sampling methods, but it is largely forgotten how long the straw poll era lasted -- over 110 years from the Pennsylvania survey in 1824 to George Gallup's first national poll in 1936.

But the most famous 1936 poll was published by the Literary Digest. Here is an excerpt of the poll results:

Well, the great battle of the ballots in the poll of 10 million voters, scattered throughout the forty-eight states of the Union, is now finished, and in the table below we record the figures received up to the hour of going to press.

These figures are exactly as received from more than one in every five voters polled in our country—they are neither weighted, adjusted, nor interpreted....

For nearly a quarter century, we have been taking Polls of the voters in the forty-eight States, and especially in Presidential years, and we have always merely mailed the ballots, counted and recorded those returned and let the people of the Nation draw their conclusions as to our accuracy. So far, we have been right in every Poll....

We make no claim to infallibility. We did not coin the phrase “uncanny accuracy” which has been so freely-applied to our Polls. We know only too well the limitations of every straw vote, however enormous the sample gathered, however scientific the method. It would be a miracle if every State of the forty-eight behaved on Election day exactly as forecast by the Poll....

Yet, based on past performance, many people probably assumed that the Literary Digest was correctly predicting a stunning victory...for Alf Landon.

Literary Digest’s prediction? That Republican presidential candidate Alfred Landon would win 57 percent of the popular vote and 370 electoral votes.

The electoral vote, not the popular vote, is what counts (see 1824), and by that measure, the Literary Digest was off by a mere 362 electoral votes. (What was the saying? "As goes Maine, so goes Vermont?")

So with that inaccuracy, why do straw polls even exist? To separate the candidates from their money, that's why. Here's what the New York Times said about the Ames, Iowa straw poll:

The Ames straw poll started in 1979, initially conceived as a way to raise money for the caucuses. It has been criticized as a poor test of support because the candidates essentially buy the tickets for the attendees who do the voting. Campaigns are expected to buy thousands of $30 tickets for supporters, provide them transportation and then pamper them during the carnival-like event.

So when Giuliani and McCain decided not to play this year, people in Iowa were not pleased.

Mr. McCain’s decision to bypass the poll took Iowa Republican Party officials by surprise, because he has been competing aggressively in the state. But party officials said they still intended to hold the event and that the developments did not lessen the importance of the Iowa caucuses, which are tentatively scheduled for Jan. 20, but could be held even earlier as other states move up their primaries.

Mr. Giuliani’s announcement irritated some Iowa Republicans, who for nearly three decades have jealously guarded their tradition of opening the nation’s race for the White House. But it also underscored the reality that advisers to Mr. Giuliani believe that his best prospects for winning the nomination could rest in appealing to moderate voters in the crush of primaries in California, Florida and New York, which will require costly advertising campaigns.

But there was some jockeying for position.

The Romney campaign, which has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars advertising in the state and reaffirmed its decision to take part in the straw poll, was quick to criticize the decisions to pull out.

Christopher Rants, the Iowa House Republican leader who is an adviser to the Romney campaign, said, “It sure looks to me that Giuliani is trying to avoid having to compete for conservative votes.”

Interestingly enough, McCain bypassed the 2000 Ames straw poll also.

Calling the straw poll a "sham" that contributes to "the pessimism and the cynicism" Americans feel about the role of money in politics, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., boycotted the event, spending his weekend instead on a boat in the middle of Lake Powell in Arizona. (McCain's opposition to ethanol subsidies hasn't exactly endeared him to the Iowa farm community, so maybe it was just as well the senator boycotted the poll. His campaign is hardly catching on here, and he may even bypass the Iowa caucuses next January.)

Noting that the other nine candidates had collectively spent millions of dollars on the event -- and underestimating the actual voter turnout -- McCain spokesman Howard Opinsky estimated the cost of each vote at $5,000 to $10,000. "Why not just buy everyone a car?" Opinsky asked.

It's not politically savvy, but I demand a Japanese car. They run.


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