So Herman Cain, the former CEO of a third-rate pizza chain named after a mafia movie, has trounced his more serious presidential rivals in the Florida Republican straw poll on Saturday. Cain received 37 percent of the votes cast, to Texas Governor Rick Perry’s 15 percent and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s 14 percent, the race’s two front runners. Former Senator Rick Santorum, who lost his last election by 18 points and who between the debates everyone forgets is running, got 11 percent. Texas Representative Ron Paul, whose strange views guarantee he won’t win the nomination, got 10 percent, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who isn’t even running a functional campaign, got 8 percent. They all towered over Representative Michele Bachmann, who got 1.5 percent.
Political pundits are already telling us what this means, as if it means anything. On Friday the media overhyped the importance of Perry’s unimpressive performance in Thursday’s debate, suggesting that one defensive performance might toss him out of his lead in the polls. So naturally they are eager to glom onto evidence of their perspicacity. “Perry’s failure to win on the heels of a shaky performance in Thursday’s debate will underscore concerns by some of his supporters about whether he can maintain and build on his quick rise in the polls,” reads a typical entry from USA Today.
In the usual manner of these inane expectations’ games, the loss for Perry is seen as worse than for Romney because Perry attempted to win the Florida straw poll and Romney did not. Perry, unlike Romney or Bachmann, instantly blasted out a statement on the results, graciously congratulating Cain and putting the best possible spin he could on being outgunned by a novelty candidate. “Today’s Florida P5 straw poll shows the conservative message of job creation, fiscal responsibility and limited government is gaining momentum,” said Perry.
Some pundits will point to Bachmann’s numbers as evidence that her star is dimming, while others will give her a pass because she did not appear on the ballot.
No such grand conclusions should be drawn from this meaningless, non-binding contest. Straw polls, like the famous one in Iowa, are not good proxies for future primary results. They include only a small number of paying participants. The Florida straw poll took place at an event hosted by the Florida GOP that cost $175 to attend. Cain won with only 996 votes. In 2008 John McCain won the Florida Republican primary with 36 percent of the votes. That equaled 701,761 votes. If you want to get an idea of how Florida Republicans might vote, you can take a poll. The last one, from Quinnipiac, showed Rick Perry in first with 28 percent and Romney in second at 22 percent. Cain came in ninth with 7 percent. (The poll included Sarah Palin.)
Those numbers are a lot closer to whatever the final result in the Florida primary will be. But the voting is still five months away. So you shouldn’t make too much of any poll this early, much less a straw poll.