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.”
But he also points out the Iowa GOP has made the straw poll a media event that is hard to resist: The event is scheduled for the middle of August, several weeks into a month where notoriously little happens. To maximize attendance and play to cameras, the poll coincides with the Iowa State Fair, an event that captivates the imagination of coastal types with butter-sculpted cows.
He acknowledges the state—which now has fewer than 80,000 farmers—is adept at playing up a rural, homespun image for outsiders, especially those with cameras.
“It can’t be minimized that there are pictures. [Politicians] come out and scratch the ears on a pig and eat a corn dog, and East Coast photographers can’t resist that stuff. And then there’s the straw poll itself and it’s a carnival atmosphere. It’s just a huge photo-op,” Yepsen says.
There’s another potential reason behind so much straw poll coverage. Calling to mind the Morry Taylor spectacle, Yepsen says the event is “kind of fun.” He adds, “and you know there are a lot of things covering politics that aren’t fun.”