WASHINGTON — When it comes to political polls, there are real scientific surveys that measure public opinion with statistical precision, and then there are "straw polls," which measure not much of anything but somehow still capture attention.
Ninety percent of straw poll politics, to twist an old Woody Allen phrase, appears to be just showing up.
Maybe that’s why some of the lowest-rated candidates in big-time presidential polls do so well in the straw-poll surveys, which don’t bother with niceties like scientific sampling and margins of error.
The king of Republican informal polls this year is Texas Rep. Ron Paul, while for Democrats, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd do surprisingly well.
Dodd, for example, campaigned in York County, S.C., in March; two days later he won a "poll" of 100 county Democrats. The victory, said county Democratic Chairman Jim Watkins, “proves he is a major contender in the South Carolina primary.”
But he also had a cogent explanation for Dodd’s sudden appeal.
“He visited here,” Watkins said.
Not to be outdone, other candidates have since touted their own similar dubious triumphs.
“Democrat base gives Kucinich third major win in nationwide poll,” his staff trumpeted, boasting of victory in a "poll" by the Progressive Democrats of America earlier this month.
The clear coast-to-coast king of the straw-poll world, though, is Paul. His Web site offers a list and even a map of straw polls he's won, and there is unquestionable geographic breadth: Victories at gatherings of Republicans Abroad in South Korea; the Patriot Primary Straw Poll on AM 1280 in Minnetonka, Minn; the Laramie County, Wyo., Republicans; the South Sound Ronald Reagan Republican Club in Tacoma, Wash. — you get the idea.
Little of this translates into similar success among real scientific surveys of public opinion at large. Neither Paul, Dodd nor Kucinich has cracked double digits in the key early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
In fact even in one well-known straw poll in New Hampshire, the nation’s first primary state, alas, underdog Democrats are getting pummeled.
It's the famous coffee bean poll at Brewbakers, a longtime Keene, N.H., gathering spot where folks come to sip the smooth South American blend called Red House starting at 6 a.m. seven days a week.
Since Nov. 21, the staff has given customers magnetic coffee beans. They place the beans under a picture of their favorite candidate. Each day, co-owner Cindy Brewster tallies the results.
So far, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama has won each day but two. For reasons Brewster can’t figure, Kucinich won one and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson took the other.
Republicans are less popular in the college town; Democrats usually get four times as many votes. Paul is doing well on the GOP side, winning about half the days, and the rest are divided among other candidates.
Except for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has gone nowhere.
“His best day was six votes,” Brewster said. “He’s not showing up much here.”
But Kucinich and Obama have — literally. Obama came in person, just after Thanksgiving, talked to customers — and voted for himself.
Looks like showing up really works.
ON THE WEB
View Ron Paul's straw poll.
Read more about Dennis Kucinich's straw poll victories.