The next straw poll, in 1987, was billed as the “Calvacade of Stars,” and in many ways, it was the seed of what the Ames straw poll is today. The event, which drew 200 members of the media and centered around a night of speechmaking, cost $25 and was held in Hilton Coliseum. During the day, candidates hosted a sort of pre-game event, where they set up tents, served food and drink and met with ticket-holders. In his book, Hugh Winebrenner characterized the night’s speeches as “routine” and the supporters “staid” with two notable exceptions of the kind of spectacle that have colored the contest since. To generate publicity for her campaign, in advance of the fundraiser little-known candidate Kate Helsop walked across Iowa with a pig. But it was Pat Robertson, who stole the show and shattered expectations of another George H.W. Bush win, when a group of fervent, uniformly-dressed Robertson supporters from the religious right showed. They had arrived on buses.

Again, while no one took Robertson’s candidacy seriously, Bush’s third-place finish was reported as a shock and a serious sign of his campaign’s organizational weakness. Even back then, coverage reflected healthy skepticism about the significance of the event.

Here’s E.J. Dionne Jr., writing for The New York Times:

While the poll did not persuade Republican leaders that Mr. Robertson had a chance of winning the nomination, they said the party would have to regard more seriously his organization’s ability to mobilize support, especially among devout conservative Christians.

The poll was conducted at a meeting here of about 3,800 Iowa Republicans who contributed $25 each to the state party for a chance to cast a ballot. The precinct caucuses in Iowa on Feb. 8 will be the first important nominating test of the 1988 Presidential race.

The staffs of the other Republican contenders who participated in the straw poll sought to discount Mr. Robertson’s victory as the work of a tiny minority that has few real ties to Republican politics. And they said it would reopen the debate over whether informal ”straw polls” were a leading or a misleading indicator of a candidate’s real political strength.

This argument was made with special feeling by the campaign of Mr. Bush, which saw its image for organizational efficiency tarnished by a third place finish in the voting behind not only Mr. Robertson but also Senator Bob Dole, the minority leader.
The “Calvacade to Stars” also set the precedent for future straw polls, which have been heavy on spectacle, spending and mass mobilization.

In 1995, a year, in which non-Iowans were also permitted to vote, Lamar Alexander flew in out-of-state supporters on two chartered 727s. Charleston Heston stumped for Phil Gramm. And, in what Yepsen says remains his most memorable straw poll moment, candidate Morry Taylor rolled onto the grounds in a Dodge Viper. He was flanked by a group of women on Harley Davidson motorcycles. Cheating was alleged to have been a problem; voters could go to the bathroom, wash the ink of their hands and vote again.

In 1999 and 2007, only Iowans were allowed to vote. Indelible ink was procured. With those two avenues to goosing the numbers closed off, Iowans were treated to more and more costly spectacle.

The press continued to relish in reporting the absurdity and falseness of the event, while committing to it the level of resources and attention that would lead one to take it seriously.
Just as there are media objections in the run up to the straw poll, there are media objections in its wake.

After the 1995 straw poll, The New York Times issued this editorial:

Senator Phil Gramm ran dead even with the front-runner for the G.O.P. nomination, Senator Bob Dole, and for a moment there we were fooled into thinking something momentous had occurred

That is just what Mr. Gramm would have us believe. His “stunning victory,” he said, would force Republicans everywhere to think twice about the inevitability of Bob Dole. The Dole folks reinforced this notion by walking around with long faces and lamenting that the results had been a “reality check” and a “wake-up call.”

Most of this is rubbish. Straw polls are not reliable gauges of anything durable. They may, for one brief moment, show that candidate A’s organization can outhustle candidate B’s. But they say little about organizational strength over the long haul.

So if media have so long loathed the straw poll, why do they cover it?

Yepsen, who has covered his fair share of straw polls, believes there is some legitimacy to the organizational strength argument. There’s also something to being first. “Regardless of what you think of Iowa, it is the first place in the United States of America to start picking their presidential candidates. And that’s a story.”

Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.