Rachel Maddow   |  August 15, 2011

Despite fuss, Iowa straw poll irrelevant

Rachel Maddow explains the mechanics of the Iowa straw poll and why its results are meaningless to the Republican Party's race for the presidency.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

MADDOW: or not political campaigns have a natural life span, campaign Web sites do not have a natural life span. Campaign Web sites do not just die on their own. If you want them to die, you have to overtly kill them, and somebody forgot to kill Tim Pawlenty 's presidential Web site . After a third place showing at the Ames , Iowa , straw poll this weekend, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty quit the race for president. He quit during an appearance on an ABC Sunday morning show called " This Week ." But if any of the 300 million Americans don't watch that show on any given Sunday missed the announcement and were still interested in Tim Pawlenty , and went to Tim Pawlenty 's Web site , you would not have known from the Web site today that Mr. Pawlenty had left the race. This is what timPawlenty.com looks like right now. Pawlenty 2012 and the big slogan, "Tomorrow Begins Today."

NARRATOR: Our morning in America , our new beginning, our road to tomorrow begins today. Right here, right now.

MADDOW: Tomorrow begins today. Technically speaking, tomorrow ended yesterday for Governor Pawlenty . Today even ended yesterday, but somebody maybe forgot to inform the webmaster as well as whoever tweets in Mr. Pawlenty 's name. Quote, "Congratulations to Representative Bachmann on her win. Our campaign needed to show progress and we did. I'm eager for the campaign ahead." And then he quit. There will, in the end, be no campaign ahead for Tim Pawlenty . He is out of the race. But whether or not you thought Tim Pawlenty was going to win the nomination, whether or not you think Pawlenty was going to win the presidency, Tim Pawlenty is out of the race for a reason that statistically speaking makes no sense. First of all, Tim Pawlenty initially said if he finished anywhere better than sixth at the Ames , Iowa , straw poll , he would see that as a victory and he would stay in the race. He ended up finishing third but he dropped out anyway. Second of all, the decision point for him here was the Ames , Iowa , straw poll . Basing a decision about whether or not to continue a presidential campaign on the result of the Ames , Iowa straw poll is a little bit like basing that kind of decision on who's going to win a game of bingo. If you're going to afford to only play one bingo card and you're playing against somebody else who just bought 50 bingo cards, the 50 bingo cards person is more likely to win. Yes, there is some chance and some skill involved -- listen closely. But basically you need a 1st grader's knowledge of math in order to understand the predictive odds here. And that's essentially how the Ames straw poll works. It costs money to vote. It costs 30 bucks to cast a ballot. Some of the candidates who really want to win the Ames , Iowa straw poll buy the ballots for people and then hand them out so the people to whom they hand out the ballots will vote for them. That's how you win the Ames , Iowa straw poll . You spend money to do it. Michele Bachmann who won the straw poll this weekend reportedly purchased 6,000 $30 tickets. Her campaign bought the ballots and then just gave them out to people, a strategy that resulted in her getting 4,823 votes, which was first place. The Iowa Republican Party also sells essentially real estate inside the straw poll . They sell real estate . They sell locations inside the straw poll to the highest-bidding candidate. The highest-bidding candidate for real estate at the straw poll this year was Republican Congressman Ron Paul of Texas . His campaign paid $31,000 for the best, best-placed, largest, most desirable booth location at the straw poll -- and Ron Paul , in correlation with his willingness to spend that kind of money at Ames came in second in Ames . He was 152 votes behind Michele Bachmann . Now, do those votes represent organic, statistically grassroots support for the candidacies or Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul among Iowa Republicans broadly speaking? Maybe. Bingo. But they also might just represent the fact those two campaigns are good at winning a racket like this. And it is a racket. And, actually, the sort of refreshing thing about the Ames , Iowa , straw poll is that the people who are making money off this racket, the Iowa Republican Party , fully admit that it is a racket that is just designed to make them money . After the second-ever Ames straw poll back in 1987 , the Iowa Republican Party 's finance director said, quote, "The Iowa straw poll was devised as a fundraising gimmick for the state party and nothing more than that." The current chair of the Iowa federation of college Republicans says the straw poll is, quote, "primarily a fundraiser." So, good for Iowa Republicans that they admit it and that they have figured out the way to make this money , and makes a ton of money for their state party and, frankly, good for the local community in Ames , Iowa . This fundraiser pumps a lot of money into the local economy every time there is one of these gimmicky fund raisers. But based on the way the Beltway media handles the Ames straw poll , you might surmise the Ames straw poll has predictive power . Let's see how people do at this pay-to-vote, rigged fundraiser bingo game is going to tell you who's going to win the Iowa caucuses and that who wins the Iowa caucuses will tell you who's going to win the presidential nomination . That is a great storyline and it justifies a lot of very exciting coverage, it does not, however, happen to be true. I mean, every once in awhile, it does happen. In 1999 , George W. Bush won the Ames straw poll , then the Iowa caucus , then the Republican nomination. But other than that, if you were looking to the straw poll to see how things are going to go, well, the Republican Party would have nominated Mitt Romney for president last time around and Phil Gramm in 1995 , and Pat Robertson , the time for that, and George H.W. Bush , the year that they actually nominated Ronald Reagan . Bob Dole , it should be noted, tied Phil Gramm in the straw poll in 1995 . But by the time Iowans voted again that season in the Iowa caucuses , Phil Gramm , after his awesome tie for first place Iowa straw poll performance finished at 9 percent in the caucuses. Nate Silver at " The New York Times " crunched the numbers on this historically today and found that performance in Iowa does actually have some predictive value of how you're going to do in the overall nominating process if you are a Democrat. But if you are a Republican, it really doesn't matter -- that means the straw poll , that means the caucuses, that means Iowa . One of the reasons for that? Well, while Iowa Democrats seem to be kind of like the rest of Democrats across the country , Iowa Republicans seem to not at all be like the rest of Republicans across the country . All that their stated Iowa preferences tell you is what their stated Iowa preferences are. And they like folks like Pat Robertson and Phil Gramm and this year, Michele Bachmann . They also like people who pay for their votes and feed them and provide good entertainment at Ames to buy their votes. Don't tell the people who make magazine covers or book the Sunday shows about this. But Iowa -- Iowa is largely irrelevant to Republican presidential politics . We know who the Democratic nominee is going to be this year, it's the incumbent president. The whole contest this year is about who the Republican nominee is going to be, and for that question and context, Iowa doesn't matter almost at all. Which makes it both sad that Tim Pawlenty got out of the presidential race because of how he performed at something that is this pointless and irrelevant, but it also makes you think maybe Mr. Pawlenty is getting what he deserves, since he staked his whole campaign for the presidency on everybody knows in advance is irrelevant. In any case, no matter why Pawlenty got out, none of the other candidates will have Tim Pawlenty to forget to kick around this year. What does matter in all of presidential politics this year on the Democratic side and Republican side is this.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We can't afford to lose up to a million jobs in this country . Construction workers are lining up to find jobs. Ultimately, the private sector is going to be creating jobs. We can get this economy going again. We get the economy moving. Putting people back to work. We've got to focus on growing this economy . That creates a lot of jobs.

MADDOW: President Obama today on the first day of his three-day bus tour -- a bus tour that looks very much like him campaigning, as you can see there, even though the White House swears he is not campaigning. President Obama talking at every turn about the single thing that actually is the most predictive thing in almost any presidential election -- and that is the state of the economy . And that is why personalities and style and hype and gimmicks aside, that is why the entry of Texas Governor Rick Perry into the presidential race deserves to get as much attention as it is getting. And it frankly deserves to obscure the nonsense in Iowa . While Democrats would love for Rick Perry to run on his Michele Bachmann -style, Pat Robertson -style, Mike Huckabee -style, social conservative , religious conservative, secede from the Union yihaa credentials, which he would have had to run on to compete in Iowa , what Rick Perry has decided to run on instead is this.

NARRATOR: Hope is on the horizon, not the empty rhetoric of hope, but a record that gives us hope. That leader, Rick Perry -- America 's jobs governor.

MADDOW: America 's jobs governor. That was Rick Perry 's first campaign ad now that he's announced he's running, calling himself a job's governor.

The biggest question in presidential politics is: can Rick Perry credibly call himself that? Can he credibly base his campaign on that? Does he have an economic message about the economy and jobs creation that is going to resonate? You might recall that sacrificed a giant bologna on this show to make the case I do not think Rick Perry 's economic claims and jobs claims bare up under factual scrutiny. But will his rivals be able to call bologna on the message? If he goes far enough towards the nomination, will the White House be able to call bologna on that message? And beyond that, if the effect of us trying to come out of the great recession not just that we as a country are upset and worried about unemployment and our economy , but we are also upset and worried about our future and about what we can count on in tough times that we are pretty sure are sticking around for awhile.

Here's the next presidential politics question: how big a deal with Democrats make of the fact that Rick Perry says Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional and thus must be abolished? Howard Dean joins us next.