The Mt. Vernon Democrats straw poll results are in (Aneesh Chopra 148-Ralph Northam 61; Mark Herring 128-Justin Fairfax 108), and my friend Ben Tribbett has some thoughts. For instance, Ben argues, the fact that “none of the candidates have enough support to even get 200 people to show up and vote for them on a Saturday night in a location within 30 minutes of about 75% of the NoVA population…tells me everyone is really weak right now with very little organization behind them.” It’s an interesting argument, but do the facts back it up?
Looking back on past editions of this straw poll – and also Gerry Connolly’s St. Patrick’s Day (“the holiest day of the year,” as Connolly half-jokingly calls it) straw poll – helps provide perspective, both in terms of the polls’ raw numbers and also their predictive accuracy (or lack thereof). Here are results from a few previous NOVA Democratic straw polls.
Gerry Connolly St. Patrick’s Day 2007
Hillary Clinton (96 votes)-John Edwards (68 votes)-Barack Obama (63 votes)
In sum, that straw poll was completely wrong (Obama ended up winning Virginia, while Edwards had dropped out by then). It also was not particularly well attended, with just 227 votes cast, very similar to last night’s Mt. Vernon straw poll. Meh.
Mt. Vernon 2008
Hillary Clinton 56%-Barack Obama 44% (note that Obama went on to win the Virginia primary overwhelmingly just 10 days later)
Leslie Byrne 52%-Doug Denneny 22%-Gerry Connolly 13%-Lori Alexander 11% (note that Connolly went on to win the primary by 25 points over Leslie Byrne, with Denneny and Alexander a distant 3rd and 4th).
In other words, the straw poll was not accurate in the least bit in terms of predicting election outcomes. As for the number of votes cast, Tim Craig reported that there were 180 votes cast for president (with presumably a similar number for Congress). That’s fewer than candidates received this year, actually, yet I doubt anyone would argue that Democratic campaigns for president were “weak” in 2008.
Mt. Vernon 2009
Governor: Brian Moran (83 votes); Creigh Deeds (43 votes); Terry McAuliffe (33 votes).
Lieutenant Governor: Jody Wagner (62); Jon Bowerbank (44); Pat Edmonson (18), Mike Signer (15), Rich Savage (10).
On the governor’s straw poll, clearly the results weren’t accurate at all, as Creigh Deeds ended up winning the Democratic nomination, with Brian Moran in third place and Terry McAuliffe in second place. Wrong, wrong, and wrong. As for the LG race, the results were more accurate, although still far from perfect (Edmonson beating out Signer?). As for the numbers, they were miniscule, with just 159 votes cast for governor and 149 for LG.
By the way, the Connolly St. Patrick’s Day straw poll results that year were even less indicative of the primary results, with Terry McAuliffe romping over Brian Moran, and with Creigh Deeds FAR behind in last place. Uh, no. Turnout, on the other hand, was strong, with 934 ballots cast, but of course the gubernatorial campaigns paid for hundreds of their supporters to attend, so I’m not sure what that means exactly.
With regard to that last question, here’s what I wrote back in February 2009, following that year’s Mt. Vernon Dems Mardi Gras party/straw poll:
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 [Connolly-allied Harris Miller] 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.
More relevant to what Ben’s arguing in his post, I also wrote:
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.
The bottom line of all this: I wouldn’t take straw polls very seriously, either the level of turnout or the results. Just ask Michele Bachmann about how her win in the 2012 Iowa straw poll propelled her to the presidency. Or not. By the way, the number of votes cast in that Iowa straw poll, despite massive publicity, a huge amount of money poured into it, and a presidential nomination up for grabs was…just 16,892 votes (Bachmann won with 4,823). The point is, these things don’t usually draw many people, nor are they in any way predictive of the final results. But they can be a lot of fun, if you’re into having 30-second conversations with candidates, mingling with their staffers and most diehard (at times rabid) supporters, and of course eating unhealthy fried foods of various kinds (last night: fried chicken). Hey, what else would you be doing on a Saturday night, anyway? 😉