Why Straw Polls Mean Something

All political eyes are on Memphis and the start of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference. This conference has been described by some as the unofficial start of campaign season. Of course, the big news will be who wins the Hotline Straw Poll. Every campaign worth their salt will pull out every maneuver possible to win.

Some pundits view these straw polls as irrelevant because they say the results are manipulated. Well, I believe these straw polls are more telling (at this point in an election cycle) precisely because they require the candidates to do some political maneuvering, in order to win them.

To illustrate my point, let’s compare what it takes to win a national poll versus what it takes to win a straw poll.

A national telephone poll demonstrates a candidate’s name ID. While that’s all well and good, the results mean little when it comes to running fifty separate races where some states hold caucuses, etc. Besides, national polls measure voter preference, but they don’t measure voter intensity. Intensity is what really matters. That’s why political insiders don’t worry too much about polls that show Rudy up by twenty points.

Conversely, winning a straw poll requires a candidate to build an organization capable of orchestrating a victory. Nothing moves in politics unless it’s pushed, or in layman’s terms, winning a straw poll doesn’t just “happen.” You don’t just win these straw polls by luck — you do it by dragging as many of your supporters as you can find to the convention. If you can build an organization to help win a straw poll, the odds are you can also build a grassroots organization to win a primary election.

And straw polls also measure voter intensity. Let’s face it: it’s easy to answer a few questions over the phone, but if you’re willing to go to Memphis and sit through a convention, you are committed to the candidate.

Taking the time to vote in a straw poll implies you’re not going to change your mind. It means you might be willing to trudge through the snow in New Hampshire. It means you might keep knocking on some doors — even when you’re knuckles get sore.

When John McCain won the CPAC straw poll, a lot of us felt it legitimized his national poll numbers. Granted, we realized he must have found a way to stack the votes (it’s hard to imagine conservatives being so supportive of McCain). But frankly, we were more impressed with him for having pulled it off.