Brendan Nyhan cautions everyone today to pay little attention to the straw poll results at CPAC or to early horse race polling for the GOP presidential nomination:

At this point in the election cycle, the preferences that matter are those of the activists, elected officials, donors, and party elites who take part in the so-called “invisible primary.” Media hype of public opinion surveys and straw polls only serves to obscure where the meaningful action is taking place.

I agree with him that the front-line numbers for both of these indicators are very easy to overhype. I’m not sure they are entirely meaningless, however.

For example, if Sarah Palin was in fact polling as a strong frontrunner right now—say, getting around 40% of the vote in horse race matchups—I’d be taking her a lot more seriously as a candidate than I am. More to the point, “activists, elected officials, donors and party elites” would be taking her a lot more seriously.

In general, I’d think that polling is meaningful in more or less the way that primaries were meaningful in the old nomination system before reform (that is, pre-1972). They’re one piece of evidence that people who do have a major say in the nomination may look at when trying to choose which candidate to back. Now, they—and we—need to be very careful about how to interpret that evidence, since name recognition, and not actual preference, is going to be the main thing that these polls measure. I’m not convinced, however, that there’s really no value added beyond that.

Straw polls are a somewhat different story. The voters are the kinds of people who matter during the invisible primary, so one might think that a public tally of where some of them stand would hint at what’s happening in general. Unfortunately, most straw polls are able to be manipulated by the candidates (for example, by busing in supporters to an event), so they may tell us less about what activists think than which activists happened to be in the room. On the other hand, any candidate who tries hard to organize a strong vote in an early straw poll and fails miserably may be letting us know that there’s something wrong.

For example, in 2007 Mike Huckabee did badly at CPAC. I have no idea whether or not he tried to compete in that straw poll, but if he did, it might have been an indication of the hostility of some movement conservatives to his candidacy—the same ones who wound up derailing his campaign after his Iowa breakthrough in 2008. So it seems to me that straw polls might hold some useful hints about what’s going on, but they can only be interpreted with the help of a good deal of on-the-ground reporting.

So, overall I agree with Nyhan, but I’d also try to squeeze a bit of information out of these early tea leaves. Certainly, though, I wouldn’t take them at face value.