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Don’t Pay Attention To That Wisconsin Straw Poll

Like most people with at least a little taste, I prefer “The Simpsons” and “South Park” to “Family Guy.” Still, I couldn’t help but think of this “OMG who the hell cares” “Family Guy” clip upon hearing that Hillary Clinton beat Bernie Sanders by only 49 percent to 41 percent in a straw poll conducted at the Wisconsin Democratic Convention this past weekend by WisPolitics.com.

Here’s what I read into the straw poll results: A few more highly motivated Democrats in Wisconsin cast their lot with Clinton than with Sanders. That’s it. Conventions by their nature attract the truly hard-core party faithful, so this is the perfect environment for a very liberal candidate like Sanders to do well. In addition, less than 40 percent of the more than 1,300 delegates who attended the convention even voted. We’re talking about a sliver of a sliver. It was in no way a random sample — or even a particularly meaningful sample.

Indeed, past straw polls taken at the Wisconsin Democratic Convention and Wisconsin Republican Convention have zero correlation with who the eventual nominees are. (See below for the past six Wisconsin straw polls taken for open presidential nominations for which I could find results.)

When you look at these past results, there’s just no reason to give much weight to the Democratic straw poll from last weekend. Clinton remains a prohibitive favorite for the Democratic nomination. I guess you could argue that this result shows Sanders has some support among very liberal Democrats. We already knew that, though, from public polls with random samples. The Wisconsin result told us nothing we didn’t already understand about the Democratic race.

Past straw poll results:

1983 Democrats: Liberal Sen. Alan Cranston won the Democratic straw poll — conducted by the Wisconsin Democratic Party — 39 percent to 36 percent over eventual nominee Walter Mondale. Cranston went on to win 0.3 percent of the national primary vote and no primaries.

1987 Republicans: Vice President George H.W. Bush won the Republican straw poll 36 percent to Sen. Bob Dole’s 30 percent. Bush and Dole did end up No. 1 and No. 2 in the eventual primary season, though Bush would win 68 percent of the national primary vote. It’s the only Wisconsin straw poll I found that forecast the nominee correctly.

2003 Democrats: Howard Dean defeated eventual nominee Sen. John Kerry 61 percent to 16 percent among the delegates who voted in the WisPolitics.com Democratic straw poll. Dean won only 6 percent of the national primary vote and dropped out of the race after finishing a distant third in the Wisconsin primary.

2007 Democrats: John Edwards came out ahead of then-Sen. Hillary Clinton 39 percent to 21 percent among those who cast a ballot in the WisPolitics.com Democratic straw poll. The eventual nominee, then-Sen. Barack Obama, finished third, with 19 percent. Edwards ended up with 3 percent of the national primary vote.

2007 Republicans: Fred Thompson somehow came out in first place, 31 percent to 27 percent, over Wisconsin’s own Tommy Thompson in the WisPolitics.com Republican straw poll. Eventual nominee Sen. John McCain earned only 3 percent in the straw poll. Fred Thompson would go on to win just 1 percent of the national primary vote, and Tommy Thompson didn’t make it past the Iowa straw poll.

2011 Republicans: Herman Cain won over Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels 27 percent to 17 percent in the WisPolitics.com Republican straw poll. Cain dropped out of the race by November 2011, and Daniels didn’t even run. Mitt Romney, who won the nomination, took just 10 percent in the straw poll.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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