When a Poll Is Not Really a Poll

By Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 8, 2007

High on the list of superpowers a campaign might wish for would be the ability to manipulate opinion surveys, and on Saturday in Ames, Iowa, Republican presidential contenders will get to live that dream through the Iowa straw poll.

The event, a tradition in election cycles in which there is no GOP incumbent, is billed as an indicator of how party members will vote in the Republican caucus in January. But while no one can stage-manage a random telephone poll, it is open season when any voting-age Iowan or Iowa college student with a $35 ticket has a say.

Few of the 40,000 people who are expected to descend on Iowa State University on Saturday have to reach into their own pockets to pay to participate in the so-called poll. The campaigns are more than happy to cover the entrance fee -- and so much more.

Republican presidential candidates looking to score high in the straw poll lure Iowans to Ames with not only free tickets, but also transportation, food and entertainment.

Before heading in to give a short speech, candidates will hold forth in the tents that each campaign rents around the Hilton Coliseum. (In 1999, President Bush, who carried the day, paid $43,500 for his well-located pavilion and $62,000 for pulled-pork sandwiches.) This year's favorite, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, advertises "music, barbecue and a whole lot of fun at our tent" on his Web site.

The proceeds from ticket sales, tent rentals, parking, etc., will go to the Iowa Republican Party, making the straw poll a bald money-making venture for the state GOP. A former state finance chairman said as much in stark terms to the Online NewsHour: "The Iowa straw poll was devised as a fundraising gimmick for the state party and nothing more than that."

Ames, however, is important for more than just the state party's bottom line.

For candidates trailing in reliable, representative polls and in fundraising, Ames may prove critical. After all, failure to do well in a poll for sale is often seen as an organizational indictment. That is why there may be fewer GOP contenders after Saturday.

Tommy Thompson, a former governor of neighboring Wisconsin, is one of those who has raised the stakes on Ames, saying that "a big part of our campaign plan has included the August straw poll."

The Ames event has made some effort to appear more legitimate. For the 1999 straw poll, the state GOP decided to limit participation to Iowans. Before then, candidates could bus people in from other states.

Another improvement was cutting down on the casting of multiple ballots by switching to indelible ink. The Iowa GOP uses the same brand of ink used in the December 2005 Iraqi parliamentary elections.

But purple-finger moments aside, the opinions of those who vote in Ames stand only for those who show up that day. No one pretends this is a random, statistically representative survey.

So be sure to tune in on Saturday for a seminal political event in the nation's heartland, but don't expect a solid estimate of how likely Iowa Republican caucusgoers feel about the GOP candidates.

For that, here are the results from the Washington Post-ABC News Iowa poll released Sunday, free from culinary incentives: Romney, 26 percent; Rudy Giuliani, 14; Fred Thompson, 13; Mike Huckabee, 8; John McCain, 8; Sam Brownback, 5; Tom Tancredo, 5; Tommy Thompson, 4; Ron Paul, 2; and Duncan Hunter, 1.

Cohen is The Post's polling director. Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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