Iowa’s Governor Calls For An End To The Ames Straw Poll
Iowa’s Republican Governor thinks the Ames Straw Poll has outlived its usefulness:
Is one of the quirkiest rituals of the Republican presidential election calendar heading for the grave?
It is, if Iowa’s Republican Gov. Terry Branstad has his say.
Eyeing the wreckage of the 2011 Ames Straw Poll, which Rep. Michele Bachmann won only to fizzle as a candidate soon after, Mr. Branstad wants to do away with the whole thing.
“I think the straw poll has outlived its usefulness,” Mr. Branstad said of the 33-year-old GOP ritual. “It has been a great fundraiser for the party but I think its days are over.”
Going back to 1979, Republican presidential contenders have flocked to Ames, Iowa, in August to eat fried food, dance to country bands and wheedle votes from the party faithful in what amounts to an overblown party fund-raiser disguised as a trial run for the real Iowa caucuses early the next year.
Its track record as an anointer of GOP nominees falls far shy of impressive. Only two victors, Bob Dole in 1995 and George W. Bush in 1999, went on to win the Iowa caucus the next year and then the nomination in November. And only one, Mr. Bush, went on to become president.
Still, other top Iowa Republicans bristled at Mr. Branstad’s suggestion that the sun had set on Ames.
“Gov. Branstad is wrong, and this is not a decision he will make anyway,” said a peeved A.J. Spiker, chairman of the state GOP. “It is a decision the party and the candidates will make.”
Brandstad is largely correct that the Straw Poll itself is largely pointless in terms of what it tells us about the Presidential race. As we saw in 2011 when Michele Bachmann an Ron Paul came in a first and second, the way the poll is designed makes it easy for candidates to game the system by purchasing the tickets necessary to vote in the poll and then distributing them to supporters who essentially end up attending for free. That’s not necessarily even a very good measure of the ‘grassroots” strength that many of the poll’s supporters claim that it helps to indicate. Moreover, it was rather silly that it was responsible for Tim Pawlenty’s decision to drop out of the race before most of the debates had taken place, and before a single vote had been cast. Finally, the fact that it didn’t even include two candidates who would end up dominating the Republican race for the next two months, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. Indeed, it strikes me that the lesson that 2012 teaches those candidates who would run in 2016 is that they should either skip Ames altogether, or only put in a minimal effort, because there’s no real upside in “winning” the thing, and plenty of downside in being perceived, like Pawlenty, as someone who tried to win and failed.
Brandstad’s call to end the Straw Poll, though, are unlikely to lead to anything. As noted above, he has no say in the process since the entire thing is run by the Iowa Republican Party. Indeed, the entire event is nothing more than a massive fundraising event for the state party organization. Not only do they charge for the tickets one must hold in order to vote in the poll, they also charge candidates for the tent space they rent on the site of the event where they entertain event-goers, serve food, and other such things. The price for such tent space can be quite expensive. In 2011, for example, the state GOP pulled in $113,000 in space rental fees alone, with Ron Paul’s campaign spending the most for their space at an astounding $31,000. The Srraw Poll is the single biggest fundraiser for the state party every four years. They are not going to get rid of it, and as long as they don’t get rid of it, there are going to be candidates who will want to participate.
Now if Governor Brandstad really wanted to reform his state’s contribution to the quadrennial game we call Presidential Elections, he could go much further than simply making a suggestion that his state party is going to ignore anyway. He could call for an end to the Iowa Caucuses once and for all. If this past January proved anything, it proved the utter absurdity of the entire caucus system, to the point where the person we were told “won” on Election Night (Mitt Romney) didn’t actually end up getting the most caucus votes after all the counting errors were taken into account. Moreover, as I’ve argued in the past, caucuses are inherently inferior to primaries because they limit the number of people who will turn out to vote. Given the fact that Iowa is the first contest in the nation, the fact that about a hundred thousand people willing to spend a January evening in the cold end up having so much say in Presidential politics is simply absurd. At least if Iowa held a primary, there could be some justification for their favored status on the Presidential calendar. Governor Brandstad could go one better and propose that the absurd Iowa-New Hampshire first idea be abandoned completely in favor of a system of regional mega-primaries. He won’t do either of these things, of course, because he’s from Iowa, but if he really wanted to fix the way we nominate our Presidents, that’s exactly what he’d do.