“Most Likely to…”

Americans love the inside track…we want to know what’s going to happen before it happens, which is probably one of the reasons so much attention is given to the straw polls during a Presidential election cycle. But should we put much stake in the results of straw polls and caucuses, and does anyone ever really win one? The statistical truth is, not really.

As a quick definition, a straw poll is basically a casual election, the results of which are nonbinding and that typically rank candidates, not provide a definitive “winner.” It’s a pulse detector, a snap-shot of how the participating members of a party or group are feeling at a given moment. It helps us identify trends and get a sense of popularity, but statistically, it’s not a meaningful reflection of what’s likely to happen in the corresponding primary or presidential elections.

So to the question of whether or not there is a “winner” of a straw poll, we have to look at what “winning” means in different contexts (Charlie Sheen not withstanding), as well as who is participating and why.

The voters in a straw poll are made up of people who are motivated at that moment to vote for a certain candidate. They’re revved up, they like what they see and they’re willing to sacrifice their time and energy in January, for example, to show up at the fundraising dinner, and cast a vote. This does not mean, however, that those same voters will still be motivated to vote in May or November when it really counts. And just think of how new information is heavily excavated by the media during a Presidential election “season.”

In January, the support might be there; but after learning more about the candidates, voters often jump ship and change loyalties, so the vote during a straw poll might be cast for another candidate in the primary.

Straw polls do have relevance in looking at an election cycle, however, because the attention given to candidates who rank high in straw poll results often get more media face time and notoriety, and that coverage can certainly help any candidate’s name recognition and popularity, which then can translate into primary election votes.

So the best way, then, to look at straw polling might be like a high school “Most Likely to” contest…most likely to be liked right now.