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Straw polls are more like fantasy football

What’s up with the straw polls?

Republican voters in some early placebo elections are all over the map with some exotic choices, from Herman Cain in Florida to Ron Paul in California to Michelle Bachmann in Iowa. Mitt Romney — a front runner in polls not conducted at GOP meetings in various states — even won one in Michigan.

Here in Nevada, voters at the annual Conservative Leadership Conference in July also picked Cain for president, with 24 percent of the vote. (Then again, Cain was one of just two presidential contenders to show up to the conference after a planned presidential debate was cancelled. Second-place Nevada straw poll finisher Romney threw the schedule askew when he dropped out of the debate.)  

MSNBC host Rachel Maddow tallied the results of all straw polls on a recent show, showing that Cain had won polls in Washington state, Colorado, Georgia and Florida. Paul took California (as well as the coveted Conservative Political Action Committee poll). Romney took Ohio and New Hampshire in addition to Michigan. Rick Santorum racked up Pennsylvania and South Carolina.

If straw polls meant electoral college votes, Cain would be the front runner, with 66, followed by Paul, with 55, Santorum with 29 and Bachmann with six.

But here’s the thing: Does anybody think Cain, Bachmann, Santorum or Paul have even a remote chance of winning the Republican nomination?

No, not really.

Maddow on her show seemed irked at the media’s attention to the straw poll results, reminding all of us that the events were mostly an attempt to raise money for various Republican groups more than an actual snapshot of who’s leading.

For that, we turn to opinion polls, which show Romney and Perry out ahead, as well as being the candidates who run strongest against President Obama.

So why does it seem early voters mostly favor everybody but those two?

For one, consider the voters. These are active Republicans, people who pay close attention to politics more than just every four years when there’s an election.

The crowd at Nevada’s Conservative Leadership Conference understood all the inside political jokes, and were only too willing to give up an entire Saturday to hear some of the leading lights of the conservative movement. Average voters they are not.

Consequently, these voters are more likely to vote along lines of principle than pragmatism. They’re conservatives who want a conservative candidate who shares their views, and will act on them, rather than somebody who will tell them what they want to hear.

Second, there’s nothing to lose in straw poll voting. You don’t commit yourself to vote that way in the general election, so there’s nothing riding on your vote. It’s a perfect time to send an early message to front runners, and that message is this: We like the guys who are true believers, who won’t compromise their conservative principles. Be more like them, and we’ll give you another look by the time the actual caucus or primary rolls around.

And they no doubt will. Although Paul’s supporters in 2008 did an excellent job organizing themselves and very nearly took over the Republican state convention (which party leaders had to shut down to avoid sending Paul delegates to the GOP’s national convention!), Paul ran a distant second in Nevada’s 2008 caucus. Romney won, which is a very likely outcome this year, too.

But for now, it’s fun to flirt with the possibilities, to express your true political beliefs rather than settle for the pragmatic choice, and to hand a win to somebody who may never get a chance to win the real thing next year.


Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/SteveSebelius or reach him at 387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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