The Ames Straw Poll is a straw poll that takes place in Ames on a Saturday in August of years in an election cycle in which the Republican presidential nomination seems to be undecided (that is, in years without an incumbent Republican President running for re-election). Though several different pre-Iowa Caucus straw polls take place in Iowa, the Ames Straw Poll is by far the most prominent, because it draws voters from all over the state because of Ames' geographic location near the center of the state. The Ames Straw Poll is commonly known as the Iowa Straw Poll. The Ames Straw Poll was first held in 1979.
The poll takes place among attendees of a fundraising dinner benefiting the Iowa Republican Party. Before the vote, each candidate is given a chance to make a short speech to the attendees.
The poll has been described as a cross between a political convention and a county fair, where Iowa voters have a chance to mingle, eat barbecue, and have a little fun. The party divides the venue into sections and auctions each to the candidates, who can then set up booths to present their case to the voters. The larger areas and those closest to the entrance often fetch the highest price. In 2011, bidding started at $15,000 and ranged to as high as a $31,000 bid by Ron Paul.
Non-Republicans are allowed to vote in the Ames Straw Poll. However, all voters must be 18 years of age on or before the Presidential election date, be legal residents of the state of Iowa, or a student attending an Iowa university/college, and purchase a ticket to the fundraising dinner. Voters have their hands stamped or their thumbs dipped in ink when entering the voting area so that they cannot vote twice. Ballots are put into electronic voting machines.
As a straw poll, the Ames Straw Poll's results are non-binding and have no official effect on the presidential primaries. However, the straw poll is frequently seen as a first test of organizational strength in Iowa by the news media and party insiders. As such, it can become very beneficial for the winning candidate on the national level because it builds momentum for their campaign, enhances their aura of inevitability, and shows off a superior field operation.
Since its founding, the winner of the Ames Straw Poll has gone on to win the Republican presidential nomination two out of five times. Three out of five winners (including one of the winners of the 1995 tie) have gone on to win the Iowa Caucuses.