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. :)


  1. A commenter over at bluecommonwealth says most of the other candidates who were at the straw poll also attended the Moon event. I don't know if this includes either Deeds or Moran, but it does show that McAuliffe could have attended the straw poll if he chose to. I doubt McAuliffe's no-show will be any kind of a turning point (and one wouldn't need to be as smart as Mike Henry - who I think advised Hillary to skip Iowa and that might have been what was a turning point for Obama - to figure out that McAuliffe probably had little to lose by skipping the straw poll). They probably thought McAuliffe had little to gain by attending. It would have taken a big effort to win in Moran territory, and the spin would have been that McAuliffe overspent and gratuitously embarrassed Moran.

  2. oops - I meant to say "who, I think advised Hillary to skip Iowa and that might have prevented what turned out to be a turning point for Obama"

  3. Your analysis is spot on, thanks.

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  5. A year ago, McAuliffe advocated against nominating the arguably more grassrooty Obama by claiming Obama was unelectable. I think he'll try the same thing with his own campaign this year. He has advantages that Hillary Clinton didn't. First, he has two credible competitors, each with his own share of the grassroots. Second, there's just one statewide primary. McAuliffe will have plenty of opportunities to compensate for this "flake."

  6. Eric was having trouble posting this and asked me to do the honors:

    Thoughts on your thoughts...

    1. IMO the McAuliffe campaign screwed the pooch on this one.
    a. Since his name was on the ballot he technically was competing against the others. The argument could be that he didn't put any effort into the straw poll and therefore wasn't competing. But that's a classic set up for one of the worst, overused, lamest excuses ever - "I lost because I intentionally didn't try". Ummm... yeah.

    b. He missed an opportunity to allow more people get to know him and his positions. Yes, he was doing the same at the Moon event, but he should have at least made an appearance at both. Arguably, his positions when it comes to running Virginia are the least well known of the three candidates, and he should be selling himself at every one of these events.

    c. Image isn't everything, but it's a lot. Eight out of nine statewide Democratic candidates (including AG candidate Shannon who arrived late due to travel) were there. Plain and simple - you don't want to be "the one" who didn't make it. That's standing out in a bad way.

    2. I agree completely that it was "Moran Country" and the results reflected that. You've got an excellent comparison to the Webb/Miller poll. To me that means Deeds has either got a lot of work to do to win over the grassroots or has got to win big in non-Moran country. If they're focused on the latter then this poll isn't very meaningful to the Deeds camp. But if they're hoping to take a page out of the Webb book, they could be in big trouble.

    3. In the Lt. Gov. race, I'm not sure I'd call Mount Vernon "Wagner Country". But since she appears to be the establishment candidate of choice (i.e. the endorsement list which does cover many in the NOVA area), I would expect she'll have an advantage in many regions around Virginia. It wasn't a victory for Bowerbank, but I think it does show that he's made decent progress cutting into Wagner's lead and that he can muster a solid showing of supporters outside of SW. It's not surprising that the others, mostly being very new to the campaign, were trailing by a good bit. First and foremost, they've got to get on the radar. Until that happens it's doubtful that they will pull much more than they did - even if they are great candidates.

    Finally, I think it's worth noting that at least three of the Lt Gov candidates (Bowerbank, Signer, and Savage) all got along very well. Ultimately we're on the same team and it was refreshing to see that. Governor candidates, please take note.

  7. You left out how in 2008 Mike Henry and Mo Elithee (now with Terry) bused in a ton of people from the National HRC campaign HQ in Arlington to buy that straw poll. No such corruption in this years poll. I didn't even get an email from either Jody or Brian's campaign about the event and I only passed on the generic invite to local Obama lists myself.

    As for the McAuliffe excuse that he was at the Moon event. Sharon Bulova was the host of the Moon reception and she also spoke at the Mt Vernon event. Gerry Connolly was at both and the FX Field people, Sue Langley and Chris Ambrose were at both. Bob Pearson and other devoted Moon supporters from Braddock were also at both events. The 2 events were just a few miles away from each other. Less than 10 minutes.

    This was a scheduled event and the primary fund raiser for Mt Vernon Democrats and Terry had confirmed he would be there. For him to bail out because the math was not in his favor was pure cowardice and vanity on his part and a slap in the face to the Democrats of Mt Vernon.

  8. Disappointed was the word of the evening - among committee members...

    Not a good strategy for a DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY!

  9. including AG candidate Shannon who arrived late due to travel) were there. Plain and simple - you don't want to be "the one" who didn't make it. That's standing out in a bad way.

    A little side note - knew all along that Steve was out of town and that the logistics would not work out - MV arranged for a surrogate to speak on his behalf..... Get this Steve made it to the event after all - Terry auh - NO!

  10. Lowell, why is it that we learn "Terry McAuliffe decided not to play" from you only after the vote was taken?

  11. Jerome - Maybe because I just found out last night that Terry wasn't going to be there (and was as surprised as anyone)?

  12. Right, so to blog that "The McAuliffe campaign decided not to compete in this one" when everything (including your reply) points to their planning to compete, but bailing at the last moment, seems more telling about the McAuliffe campaign's strategy (sorta 'shock and awe') than it does about the meaning of straw polls or Moran Country.

    And the forfeit also tells us a lot about the state of their campaign. Obviously, the McAuliffe campaign valued the world on this event, or they would have showed up regardless. McAuliffe would never miss an event like this-- but they couldn't afford to show up and lose.

  13. Straw polls won't be accurate in this cycle because the electorate is going to be much larger than just the party activists.

    We haven't had a gubernatorial primary or this kind of money invested in a statewide primary in years. It's going to drive turnout up.

    The general democratic electorate doesn't necessarily track the party activists, and I think the result is going to be less a function of regionalism which has traditionally driven statewide primary results and more a function of advertising effectiveness.