Do straw polls matter?
February 11th, 2011
10:21 AM ET
12 years ago

Do straw polls matter?

Washington (CNN) - OK. We admit it. We, along with the rest of the national political press corps, will be fixated Saturday on the results of the presidential straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Balloting will be open to the 11,000 conference-goers until Friday evening and the results will be revealed Saturday afternoon at conclusion of the three-day event, which is the largest annual gathering of conservative activists from across the country. And with just under a year to go until the start of the Republican presidential primary and caucus season, this year's event is considered the first real cattle call for probable and possible GOP White House hopefuls.

But how accurate a barometer is the straw poll of the wider pool of GOP primary and caucus voters?

Jack Kemp won the straw poll in 1987, the year before 1988 presidential election. Vice President George H.W. Bush ended up winning the party's presidential nomination.

In 1995, Phil Gramm came out on top at CPAC. But Sen. Bob Dole ended up taking the GOP nomination. Gary Bauer was the winner in 1999, but Texas Gov. George W. Bush won the nomination the next year.

Four years ago former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney captured the straw poll at CPAC, the first of his three victories at the conference. Romney used his appearance at the 2008 conference to end his bid for the GOP nomination, which as we all remember was won by Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Not such a great track record.

"Straw polls are more of an anecdotal measurement than an empirical one. It's not as representative a sample of the actual voters participating in the primaries and caucuses around the country," Kevin Madden tells CNN.

Madden is a Republican strategist who served as national press secretary for Romney's 2008 presidential campaign.

But just because straw polls don't always, or even often, get it right, there are still plenty of reasons to keep an eye on them.

"Straw polls can be a scrimmage in the game of expectations. They can help unknown candidacies gain traction with a surprisingly strong performance, or they can hurt top-tier candidacies with a weak performance," adds Madden. "They can also serve as a display or organizational muscle, given that some campaigns decide to use straw polls to fine-tune or showcase their on-the-ground organizational skills."

And Madden should know.

Romney's 2007 victory at the CPAC did give his bid for the White House a boost.

"It helped us generate some buzz at a time where, in national polls, Gov. Romney was still only at three or four percent. That win showed we were organized and efficient and had an ability to drive a contrast with Sen. McCain who, while he enjoyed 100 percent name recognition, had struggled with building support among conservative grassroots activists and voters," says Madden.

The candidates on this year's CPAC ballot, listed in alphabetical order, are: Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former talk show host Herman Cain, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (Christie repeatedly says he has no interest in running), Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Romney, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and South Dakota Sen. John Thune of South Dakota.

The ballot also leaves space for a write-in candidate.

Write-in efforts are being organized at the conference in support of several dark horse candidates, including real estate mogul Donald Trump, who spoke at the conference on Thursday, and the gun-toting former Alabama Agricultural Commissioner candidate Dale Peterson, whose quirky campaign ad became a YouTube hit in 2010.

Filed under: CPAC 2011 • GOP
soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. FM

    Yes straw poll matters a lot. Normally the usual poll, you take only 500 people, now they are 11,000 people. This will give the real picture where GOP stands at!

    February 11, 2011 10:28 am at 10:28 am |
  2. Cosmo

    Looking at the candidates in this year's "Panderer's and Opportunist's Derby", I think the winner will probably be Gen. Francisco Franco as he represents the type of fascism that this Freak Show Conference seems to be embracing.

    February 11, 2011 10:33 am at 10:33 am |
  3. Rick McDaniel

    No. They are very manipulated.

    February 11, 2011 10:35 am at 10:35 am |
  4. ThinkAgain

    The GOP doesn't have any ideas that work; they just want to beat President Obama for the sake of their own party and their monied special interests. So they're going to throw as much junk at the wall as they possibly can, hoping someone will stick.

    It never ceases to amaze me how people still fall for the Republican rhetoric of anti-gay, anti-abortion and pro-gun, while at the same time, the Republican economic policies hurt the average American and FUBAR our foreign policy.

    February 11, 2011 10:50 am at 10:50 am |
  5. T'sah from Virginia

    I am so sick of seeing that DUMB SIGN CNN has been showing for the past few days – over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over again!!!

    ["Straw polls are more of an anecdotal measurement...
    ...than an empirical one..."] so what's the sense in doing IT!
    It gives false hopes to those who thought they WON!
    Then you tell the 'straw winner' "Oh that was just for FUN!!"!

    In order to WIN IT you gotta be IN IT!!!
    Besides, President Obama will WIN in 2012 – So all of you "straw pullers" can just go to - (the beach and look for "sea SHELLS"). Rotflmao!!

    February 11, 2011 10:56 am at 10:56 am |
  6. Sniffit

    Here's a hint, CNN: ALMOST NO POLLS MATTER. They'er an overused and abused device for generating "news" stories without having to do any of the true jounalism that the public really actually expects from you. You know, researching facts, historical record, expert opinions (objective ones...not that bobblehead pundit crap), etc. You do it because you can't help's easy filler for the web pages and 24 hours you have to fill up with fluff in order to keep the ad revenue rolling in...but god help the rest of us as a result.

    February 11, 2011 11:04 am at 11:04 am |
  7. Josh

    I hope Bachmann runs for President. She has the leadership and the skills to be president. I hope she wins!!!!

    February 11, 2011 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |