Do straw polls mean anything?

Rep. Gerry Connolly held his 23rd annual St. Patrick’s Day Fete yesterday in the ballroom at the Kean Shriners’ Temple in Fairfax. The event is the largest annual gathering of Democrats in Northern Virginia (there were approximately 1,200 people there last night) and is well known for the straw poll that it holds every year.

To give you an idea of the importance of the straw poll, many people credit the event as what turned around Jim Webb’s campaign. At the time, he was running against Harris Miller in the Democratic primary and people were just beginning to come around to the idea of Webb becoming the eventual nominee. The campaign was initially not going to contest the straw poll, especially since Harris Miller had Connolly’s support and was the former chairman of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee.

Chris Ambrose and bloggers, however, finally convinced them to actually compete and Ambrose personally made about 300 phone calls (including to about 60 percent of FCDC) and turnout a large amount of Webb supporters. Although Webb reportedly still thought it was going to be a hostile crowd when he got there, he ended up winning the straw poll by a margin of 58% to 42%. According to what Lowell Feld wrote in Netroots Rising, Steve Jarding credits the event as a major reason why Webb won the nomination.

“If it wasn’t for the netroots packing Gerry Connolly’s St. Patrick’s Day party, Webb might not have won the primary,” Jarding believes. Jarding adds that the straw poll victory “was the first moment of concrete victory in the campaign, and it was mainly because of the netroots.”

It’s worth noting that Jarding credits the netroots as one of the major reasons for the victory. I think it’s worth noting because the blogs not only helped organize prior to the event, but they were the ones also arguing afterwards that the event showed the momentum of the Webb campaign. This is important because a straw poll victory isn’t worth much if it isn’t used correctly in the larger sense of the campaign.

At this year’s event, it’s Ralph Northam and Justin Fairfax who get to use the straw poll as a momentum builder. As I mentioned in earlier posts (see here and here), they both easily won their respective straw polls.

While it’s a good measure of a campaign to see how they’re able to turn out their supporters to Gerry’s event, the Northam and Fairfax campaigns will have to continue to work hard if they want the St. Patrick’s Day straw poll to have the same impact it had on the Webb campaign. Winning the straw poll here, after all, doesn’t always mean electoral success.

Ralph Northam already knows this first hand. He lost the same straw poll in 2013 by a 40 point margin to Aneesh Chopra and still went on to win the Lt. Governor nomination. It’s also worth noting that Terry McAuliffe received 58% of the vote back in 2009 compared to 30% for Brian Moran and 12% for Creigh Deeds despite the fact that Deeds would go on to win the gubernatorial nomination.

It appears as though Justin Fairfax also knows he can’t just depend on these straw poll victories and is simply using them to talk about momentum. His campaign sent out an email after winning the recent Alexandria Democratic Committee’s straw poll saying “momentum is building in our movement, and we are nowhere near finished!” It’s using that momentum, like Webb did, that will help to bring in donations, volunteers, and some media attention.

As it stands now, we’re just under three months away from the Democratic primary on June 13th, so there’s plenty of time for things to swing either way. But as Jarding put it, these are “concrete victories” that the Fairfax and Northam campaigns can use to help build some momentum.

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