A Few Thoughts on Straw Polls

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The straw poll last night at the Mt. Vernon Democratic committee fundraiser/party got me thinking about these things. Do they have any significance whatsoever? Do they indicate anything beyond which candidate spends the most money and effort to get their supporters out to vote for them? Are they just fun gimmicks to attract people to political fundraisers? A few thoughts.

1. Straw polls probably only matter if the result is surprising or even shocking in some way. For instance, when Jim Webb defeated Harris Miller at Gerry Connolly's St. Patrick's Day Party on March 17, 2006, that was a big deal because it was totally unexpected and also because it was on Harris Miller's home turf. Former Webb campaign senior strategist Steve Jarding said in Netroots Rising that Webb's 58%-42% victory that night marked "a key turning point" in the primary campaign. Why? Because it was a complete shocker that Jim Webb could come into the heart of Connolly/Miller country and defeat him among the type of people who attend Connolly fundraisers. That level of grassroots support and enthusiasm proved to be significant, silly/flawed straw poll or not.

2. In 2007, the winners of Gerry's St. Patrick's Day straw poll were eventual nominees Margi Vanderhye (19-12 over Rip Sullivan), Rex Simmons (19-6 over Morris Meyer), and George Barker (51-5 over Greg Galligan). That's 100% accuracy right there. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton won the straw poll, 96-68, over John Edwards, with Barack Obama at 63 votes. In the end, Obama won the Virginia Democratic primary by nearly 300,000 votes over Hillary Clinton, with John Edwards having dropped out on January 30, 2008. Obama also won Fairfax County, where the straw poll was held, by a wide margin (59%-40%).

3. Obviously, a straw poll is held in one specific location, so its results - particularly for a statewide office - would be valid at all only in that specific location (e.g., southern Alexandria). Beyond that, I wouldn't put much stock in them.

4. I would argue that straw polls can be significant both as an indication of organization strength and also as a measure of true, grassroots support. For instance, the party last night was in the heart of "Moran country," so one would expect strong grassroots support for Brian Moran there. And he got it, winning the straw poll handily (83-43-33). Other candidates had neither the grassroots support - at least not yet and not in that venue - nor the money to pay for supporters to come out and vote for them. Thus, Rich Savage received just 10 votes and Mike Signer just 15 votes. We'll see if Savage, Signer, and the others who didn't win last night can crank it up in coming months.

5. Finally, it matters if a campaign decides to seriously contest a straw poll or not. In 2006, the Webb campaign was leaning against competing in the Connolly straw poll until Chris Ambrose almost singlehandedly talked them into it (after contacting 300 people in Fairfax -- including 60% of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee -- urging those favorable to Webb to attend the party). Essentially, "you can't win if you don't play," but it's also a calculated gamble by campaigns whether or not to risk competing and losing. In the end, the Webb campaign competed, won, and reaped the benefits. But it was a strategy that was not without risk.

In the end, Brian Moran won the gubernatorial straw poll last night was would certainly be expected in "Moran country." The McAuliffe campaign decided not to compete in this one. Whether that was a wise decision or not, time will tell, but McAuliffe campaign manager Mike Henry's a smart guy and I'd assume he knew exactly what he was doing.

On the LG side, Jon Bowerbank attempted to win the straw poll by encouraging his supporters to attend, but in the end he fell a bit short of Jody Wagner (62-44 votes), whose free popcorn apparently carried the day (but not by much, and in the heart of "Jody country," where she had been endorsed by every delegate and most Board of Supervisors members and she just barely cracked 40% of the vote - not particularly impressive). Just kidding on the popcorn, although on second thought, straw polls can be - really bad pun alert - pretty "corny" affairs. Ha. :)