Now that Michele Bachmann has won Saturday’s straw poll, voters are left to sort out what they should make of this knowledge.

Does the fact that Thaddeus McCotter finished last mean that he would be a totally incompetent president and that Bachmann is the best qualified among the six who joined the contest.

The outcome of the straw poll means neither. In fact, many political experts think the poll means nothing that is significant.

If not for the press coverage and the carnival-like festivities, the Ames Straw Poll would be a big ho-hum for voters, and so would the fact that Bachmann won Saturday’s vote.

Who wins or loses did not turn on the quality of candidates’ credentials or policy stances, but largely on their ability to pay for votes, fun and food. No one knows for sure that the vote even accurately reflects the opinions of people who joined in the hoopla. As for issues, each candidate got to squeeze in about 20 minutes of speechifying.

Photo by Keely Kemp

The Iowa Straw Poll is a mock [and often mocked] election that has no legal or official significance and follows no professional voting or polling methodology. Lessening the significance is the lack of serious interest by the party’s national front runner – Mitt Romney – and of the absence of most recent high-profile and well-funded candidate – Rick Perry – or of the one who draws the kind of frenzied following and press attention reserved for rock stars – Sarah Palin. The Iowa Party refused to let Perry get on the ballot. Now, perhaps to the party chiefs’ chagrin, the heavy betting among political pundits is on a nomination battle between Perry and Romney.

The straw poll’s outcome is determined by the candidates’ ability to get supporters inside their tents, and that is largely determined by how much money the candidates’ contributors have given them to accomplish that. They bus them in to vote. They often pay their supporters’ $30 entrance fees, and they usually feed and entertain them in their tents. Those admission fees plus the tens of thousands of dollars that candidates spend to rent tent space, make the poll a major fundraising event for the Republican Party.

Some experts say it provides evidence of how well a candidate is organized, but others say it is more of an indication of how much money they can scrape together to buy straw votes.

Nevertheless, some candidates give it significance by how much emphasis they bestow on it. Ron Paul, for example, has said he must place in the top three – two spots above his 5th place finish in the 2004 straw poll. Tim Pawlenty has often played up how important the poll is to him.

Photo by Guannan Huang

Journalists also try to give it significance by writing where they think the candidates “are expected” to place in poll. For example, they have been saying Michele Bachmann has to win and that Tim Pawlenty has to “do well.” Rick Santorum also has worked hard, appearing in more counties than any other, which means he also has “to do well.”

The straw poll’s value as a predictor of who will win the Iowa caucus vote in February, the Republican nomination next summer and the general election in November 2012 has been mixed. In 2004, John McCain placed next to the last in the poll, but won the nomination before losing the general election to Barack Obama. Mike Huckabee lost to Mitt Romney in the poll, but won the Iowa Caucus only quickly faded out of the primary campaign afterwards. But in the 2000 election, George Bush won the poll, the Iowa caucus, the Republican nomination and the national election.

In some ways, a flip of the coin seems as good as the straw poll. But, then you wouldn’t have the hoopla.

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