Sunday, March 12, 2006

One of those worthless rituals

My Sunday column on the weekend's big Republican confab is here, featuring the '08 presidential hopefuls and their delicate dance with the current White House occupant.
But I didn't bother to discuss one sideshow aspect of this Memphis event (although I plan to mention it in print, and in passing, tomorrow). The Republicans held a "straw poll," supposedly designed to measure the level of sentiment for the early '08 prospects.
Oh please.
It's a nice way for grassroots activists to give a little feedback to the process; it's also inevitable fodder for the political journalists who breathe this stuff 24/7 and who are perpetually ravenous for any numbers that might measure anything. But history demonstrates that these exercises are basically a waste of time.
The term "straw poll" is apparently attributable to a 17th-century thinker named John Seldon, who wrote, "Take a straw and throw it up into the Air — you may see by that which way the Wind is." The problem is, the American straw polls seem to suggest that the wind always blows every which way.
For instance, if straw polls meant anything, we would have seen President Pat Robertson. The religious right leader won the Iowa straw poll of 1987, basically because he organized the most people to show up. (For easy identification purposes, they wore revolving lights on their heads.) Robertson wound up fading fast in the 1988 primaries.
And if straw polls meant anything, we would have seen President Alan Cranston. The charismatically-challenged Democratic senator won the Wisconsin straw poll of 1983, largely because he was a peace candidate at the height of the nuclear freeze movement. Cranston wound up as an early dropout in the 1984 primaries.
One could go on. George H. W. Bush won a Maine straw poll in 1979, and was beaten by Ronald Reagan a year later. Texas senator Phil Graham also won a Main straw poll, and never got anywhere close to the nomination.
It all comes down to who can pack the house or hand out the most goodies. Steve Forbes finished second in the 1999 Iowa straw poll (it was perhaps the high point of his '00 campaign), in part because he had the best food and the best hospitality tent. The tent, as I recall from being there, featured French doors.
So that brings us to the Tennessee straw poll last night. Maybe it's sheer unmitigated coincidence, but the first-place finisher in Tennessee was the senator from Tennessee, Bill Frist. His victory had little to do with his speech, which was easily the most tepid of all the '08 hopefuls. No, his victory can be attributed to the three busloads of loyalists who were brought in from nearby towns. So if you see the MSNBC website headline today that reads "Sen. Frist passes first test for 2008," you might want to ask, "What test? That he can pull 526 straw poll votes - 36.9 percent of the total - on his own home turf?"
But if I was compelled to annoint somebody who did well, it would be Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. He finished second (14.4 percent), in a region where he is arguably little known. That should give him bragging rights for a day or so.