The folly of straw polls

June 09, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Sen. John McCain has told GOP leaders in Iowa that he won't participate in the straw poll on presidential preference the party is sponsoring Aug. 14.

By taking that position, the Arizona Republican may be risking the ire of some party functionaries in the state that will hold the first precinct caucuses next Feb. 7. But he is also demonstrating that he knows the difference between a meaningless media event and serious politics.

There are some lessons that politicians never seem to learn, and the folly of straw polls is one of them. Evidence is abundant in the history of both parties that little or no relationship exists between who wins straw polls and who wins nominations.

In 1996, for example, the perceived winner in the Republican straw poll in Iowa was Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, who finished in a dead heat with the overwhelming favorite, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas. Mr. Gramm accomplished the feat by busing in legions of supporters and paying their qualifying fees.

But this contrived success in a straw poll masked the fact that Mr. Gramm was unable to attract any significant support in the caucuses and primaries. Although he raised $11 million, he was never a serious player in the contest for the nomination.

The Democrats already had demonstrated the ephemeral quality of straw poll results in the preliminaries to the contest for the party's 1984 nomination. In 1983, the Democrats held straw polls in several states that later chose delegates in primaries and caucuses. But when the real votes were counted the next year, not a single one of the straw vote winners finished first.

The results were most bizarre in Maine. During the late fall, former Vice President Walter F. Mondale spent $250,000 and several days of his own time campaigning for votes in a straw poll, which he won. Gary Hart ignored the October vote but won the February caucuses in a landslide five days after he had captured the New Hampshire primary.

State party leaders, both Republican and Democrat, like the straw polls for obvious reasons. They attract a great deal of attention from the news media, especially the television cameras. And they produce a lot of money for the state party. In Iowa, each delegate to the state convention in Ames will have to pay $25 to qualify to cast a vote. In most cases, the money will come from the campaigns making a serious effort.

These benefits have not been lost on Republican leaders elsewhere. The Alabama party is planning a straw poll and several other states are weighing the possibility.

In Iowa, several candidates have a clear stake in showing up well. Although the straw vote may be meaningless, it will be given heavy attention from both the press and political community. And in politics the perception of meaning is often more apparent than the reality.

Thus, Lamar Alexander, the former governor of Tennessee, needs to make a strong showing because he has said, in effect, that he is putting his eggs in that Iowa basket. He has appointed county chairmen, he claims, in all 99 counties. If organization is as important as he seems to think, he should fare well in the straw vote.

On the other end of the scale, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas cannot afford to fall short of expectations. He is the candidate leading all the others in the opinion polls, endorsements, money and magazine covers. If he were to finish second, the poll result suddenly would be seen as evidence his is a Potemkin candidacy. Indeed, the chances are that his winning margin will become the subject of extended debate among politicians and pundits.

For the candidates, the straw polls are a source of great pain. They use up money that could be better spent elsewhere. They create images of winners and losers that may be built of sand. But there is the risk of being out of the equation if you don't take part.

In Mr. McCain's case, the decision to skip the Iowa poll may reinforce suspicions -- disputed by his spokesmen -- that he doesn't intend to make a full effort in the caucus campaign later. At the least, his failure to open an Iowa office has raised eyebrows.

Whatever that decision, however, Mr. McCain is wise to skip the show at Ames. By the time Republicans start making their decisions on their choice for president, it will be forgotten.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 6/09/99

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