For the Republican presidential field, this Saturday's Iowa straw poll could end up foretelling much of what the next 15 months will look like. Or not. That's the thing about unscientific polls.
At $35 per person, the statewide straw poll hosted by the Iowa GOP and held at Iowa State University welcomes state residents of all party affiliations to attend, make their presidential pick among the 11 contenders in the Republican pool and spend the day hobnobbing on the campus' makeshift Main Street, complete with food and entertainment provided by the politicos of the hour.
In solidarity with Iraqi voters, straw poll attendees will stain their fingers with purple ink post-vote to prevent them from voting more than once.
If the estimated 40,000 Iowans show up, ticket sales could top $1 million. The money makes its way back into the pockets of the Iowa GOP, thus far the only confirmed winner of the straw poll.
Since the first one held in 1979, straw polls have been more than a bellwether of candidate popularity, but also a test of organizational ground strength and fundraising prowess heading into the country's first nominating contest, the Iowa caucus scheduled for Jan. 14.
On the "Iowa headquarters" of his campaign Web site, GOP front-runner Mitt Romney confirms his "commitment to the Iowa process" and invites Iowans to the Saturday event, like other straw poll participants offering bus pick-ups, tickets and "a whole lot of fun."
"The straw poll is an important test of strength for our campaign and an important step in turning around the entire country. I want to personally invite you to come out and to support me," says digital Romney on the site.
Of the first-tier candidates, Romney is the only contender who will be in attendance at the straw poll. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., both declined participation in the poll in June; the still-unannounced Fred Thompson will make his first Iowa run after the straw poll on Aug. 17.
A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll put Thompson in third place in Iowa among the GOP field though he has yet to visit the Hawkeye State.
Giuliani's camp said they hoped, come January, Iowa caucus-goers would vote based "on the candidate's record rather than who participates in a nonbinding straw poll." Team McCain said the Ames straw poll "will not be a meaningful test of the leading candidates' organizational abilities."
With his first-tier competition all confirmed no-shows on Saturday, Romney's ability to seize the spotlight will be a major story arc coming out of Saturday's event. Of equal interest is how the straw poll will winnow the field of second-tier Republican hopefuls who have been criss-crossing the state, now unencumbered by a bevy of party front-runners to cast heavy shadows.
Iowa GOP communications director Mary Tiffany said the straw poll doesn't guarantee a winner because of the window of time till the Iowa caucus.
"We have seen what can happen in a matter of days," Tiffany said. "Do I think this may winnow the field and some candidates may decide not to run? Yes. Will it give others momentum? Yes."
The Democratic party does not sanction straw polls.
Communications director for the Iowa Democrats, Carrie Giddins, calls the Iowa straw poll "more an artificial weeding of the caucus field than it is a barometer of where people stand. Almost like a fifth grade popularity contest of who can buy the most tickets, who can buy the most buses and who can feed the most people."
With nominating contests in states like South Carolina, Florida and California clawing their way up the 2008 calendar, the heat is on for states like Iowa and New Hampshire to assert the power of their storied presence in the political process.
If Giuliani or McCain win the Iowa caucus, it will defy precedent -- no candidate in history has been a no-show at the straw poll but won the January caucus.
The straw poll hasn't always been an accurate bellwether of the party nomination. George H.W. Bush won the first Iowa straw poll in 1979, though Ronald Reagan went on to win the nomination and presidency in 1980; Pat Robertson was the 1987 Iowa straw poll winner though George H.W. Bush won the party nomination and the presidency in 1988.