Texas Governor Rick Perry isn't surrendering.

Photographer: Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

Bring On the Straw Polls

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
Read More.
a | A

We had a vivid reminder this week of why the Ames Straw Poll -- only about eight months away, assuming it takes place next year -- is so useful. And why rules stability is the party’s friend.

First, what happened this week? There were reports that one group of Republican donors was attempting to converge on a single candidate. Or not. The campaign of Texas Governor Rick Perry moved into a more visible phase with a national TV interview. A potential campaign by Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan seemed to kick off. Ohio Governor John Kasich’s campaign went into a higher gear, as did that of Indiana Governor Mike Pence. And former Florida Governor Jeb Bush ran into some trouble. And I may have missed some news about Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal and some of the others.

Here's the problem: Even Republican party actors -- politicians, campaign and governing professionals, formal party officials and staff, activists and donors, and party-aligned interest groups and media -- are going to find it hard to figure out which of the broadly acceptable candidates to support. Equally important: How is the party supposed to coordinate its selections? And how do candidates learn which policy demands they must meet to win?

Coordination is important; without it the caucuses and primaries would be almost random exercises. Presumably, there are a lot of Republican party actors who would be fine with at least several of the candidates named above, but don’t really want Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, certainly don’t want Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, and absolutely wouldn’t want Ben Carson. Yet in the short term, almost any candidate can experience a big enough surge of popularity to win a primary, especially with a large candidate field.

That’s where straw polls come in. On the one hand, the results of the one in Ames Straw Poll are … well, goofy. The same is true for straw polls at national gatherings of conservative organizations. They can be manipulated by savvy campaigns, and they aren’t good predictors of nominations (as Gary Bauer, winner of the CPAC straw poll in 1999, could tell you). Nonetheless, they provide information for smart party actors. At the very least, high-profile events help clarify which candidates are “really” running. And party actors learn something when a candidate who “should” do well bombs at CPAC, or when a candidate claiming a sophisticated Iowa operation falls flat at Ames.

That’s also where party stability comes in. Party actors who have been through several cycles won’t be thrown off by the results of straw polls, but they also know how to extract useful information, and how to send signals to others within the party about which candidates appear viable, or what policy demands must be met to assemble a winning coalition.

Pundits often make fun of these events. Sometimes the mockery is justified, but sometimes it reflects  a mistaken belief that because the final results shouldn’t be taken at face value there is no information to be gleaned. Especially given this cycle’s large and confusing group of candidates, party actors will use whatever they can to winnow the field and move as close to consensus as possible before the real voting begins.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net