What Is the Ames Straw Poll?

Beyond the fried butter and barbeque, Ames is a vote of confidence.

ByAmy Bingham
August 12, 2011, 6:45 PM

Aug. 13, 2011 -- There have been five times in America's history when Iowa Republicans descended upon the grounds of their flagship university to gorge themselves on sticks of fried food, snap photos with some of America's most famous politicians and, oh yeah, vote for who they want to be the next president of the United States.

GOP hopefuls, or more accurately Iowa hopefuls, have been dolling out campaign swag, snacks, sweets and speeches to Iowa voters in the hopes of persuading them to cast a ballot in their favor in Saturday's Ames Straw Poll. But this vote, in every legal sense of the word, is meaningless.

It does not count toward the Iowa caucus nor does it play in the general election. In fact, historically it has had little correlation with who will be a successful candidate.

Of the five straw poll winners in history, three have gone on to win the Iowa caucus, two managed to secure the Republican nomination and only one has ever made it to the White House. Statistically speaking, a highly coveted win in Ames gives a candidate about a 20 percent chance of even getting on the ballot in the general election.

But don't tell Ron Paul that. The Texas Congressman forked over $31,000 to secure a prime tent-pitching spot on the grassy knoll closest to the Hilton Coliseum, where voting will take place. Tim Pawlenty has already paid a pretty penny as well, spending at least $50,000 to bus supporters into Ames.

Not to mention the 800 or more journalists who have flocked to the Buckeye State to report every bite of pork-chop-on-a-stick Mitt Romney takes and each corndog the Sarah Palin crew distributes to hungry reporters.

As Iowa Independent reporter Lynda Waddington put it, "It's a rowdy carnival of politics, served with a side of barbeque and ice cream."

And forget voter registration and polling station regulations. At the Ames Straw Poll it's all about the flair, the money and the ink.

To vote in the Ames poll, voters must first battle through the barrage of campaign materials strategically placed near the entrance of the voting Coliseum. To gain entrance to the Coliseum, voters first have to fork over $30 to the Iowa Republican Party. And the one thing standing between GOP enthusiasts and voter fraud is a "wash-proof" stamp on the hand.

So why are political junkies glued to CSPAN Ames coverage as if it's Shark Week on steroids for a poll that is so unbinding?

Because the Ames Straw Poll is like the first inning of the World Series. It doesn't necessarily predict the winner, but it does set the tone for the rest of the game.

Ames is the first real test of voters' confidence in each candidate. And as the stock market has clearly reminded everyone lately, confidence determines where the money goes.

For example, many expected Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback to take the top spot at the 2007 straw poll. When he turned up with a comparatively dismal third place finish behind Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, his supporters' confidence was shaken and his fundraising reports showed it.

From April to June, in the first quarter before the straw poll, Brownback raised more than $1.4 million. But the following quarter, which ran from July through October, his fundraising dropped to $925,000; by the last quarter of 2007, Brownback pulled in less than $140,000.

In Ames, it is not necessarily about winning, but about doing better than expected, which is why the nine candidates on the ballot this year are all downplaying where they hope to finish. As ABC's Matt Jaffe pointed out, Pawlenty has said he will be happy with anything higher than sixth place.

So with expectations running high and checkbooks at the ready, the political world turns to a tiny town in Iowa to eat, drink, party and poll.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events