Iowa governor Terry Branstad, a Republican, has suggested that the days of the Ames straw poll — the Midwest summer spectacle that takes the temperature of an idiosyncratic slice of the Republican party months before the first binding primaries — might be numbered.
“I think the straw poll has outlived its usefulness,” Branstad told the Wall Street Journal. “It has been a great fundraiser for the party, but I think its days are over.” Though Branstad will not ultimately decide whether the poll returns in 2015 — that decision is up to the state’s party and the candidates, among others — we hope that he’s prescient. Ames does more damage than justice to the nominating process, and ensures that the country’s first view of the Grand Old Party’s latest presidential crop is through a distorted lens.
Consider that in the poll’s 30-year-plus history it has correctly prefigured the eventual nominee just twice, in the persons of Senator Bob Dole and Governor George W. Bush, in 1995 and 1999, respectively, and only the latter went on — narrowly — to the White House. This go-round, the poll was won by Representative Michele Bachmann, who would falter in the early debates and capture just 5 percent of total primary votes. Representative Ron Paul, of being–Ron Paul fame, finished less than a percentage point behind in second. Whatever one thinks of Paul’s import or his place in conservative conversation, he was never in danger of winning the Republican nomination, in this or any neighboring universe.
Looking for Mitt Romney, who, like John McCain before him, felt no need to actively participate in the polling process? Look no further than seventh place, with just over 3 percent of the vote. What about Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain, who, in roughly descending order, would pose significant threats to Romney’s eventuality? They finished in fourth, eighth, and fifth places, respectively.
On the flip side, third-place finisher Governor Tim Pawlenty was invested heavily in winning the poll, and his failure to do so moved him to withdraw from the race. Pawlenty had his drawbacks as a candidate, and perhaps he would not have won the nomination even if no straw poll had been held. Still, he was a two-term conservative governor of a midwestern state with a working-class background, and a pseudo-event should not have been allowed to remove him from voters’ consideration.
So what exactly is Ames good for? Fundraising, for one. Ames voters are literally bought and paid for — candidates purchase tickets for their supporters and bus them into town for the straw poll — but the ticket concessions line the pockets of the Iowa Republican party. The various campaigns’ turnout efforts are supposed, as well, to be an early reflection of organization. And the results are supposed to winnow the far-flung field into a core of contenders. But the preceding paragraphs give the lie to all that, and while the cash haul is nice for the Iowa GOP, it hardly counts as an argument that the product is worth the price.
There are other arguments proffered in favor of retaining the straw poll. Among the more novel comes from the media. It is argued that Ames occurs during a key moment in campaign-narrative construction — a news lull before the caucuses in which the mainstream media is already staffed up for full-bore election coverage but does not have much of anything to cover. In this environment, the fair-like (or is it carnival-like?) atmosphere of Ames is nothing short of a “Woodstock for politicos” and a respite for assignment editors in this cruel, cruel summer. You’ll forgive us if we are not moved by the exigencies and enthusiasms of the lot who quadrennially cover the Republican nomination process as an anthropological curiosity.
In fact, the spotlight is part of the problem. The media as much as anyone have imbued the story of Ames with an import that the reality of Ames has not justified — and cannot justify. And they help sell the fiction that the straw poll highlights the divergent preferences of the “grassroots” and the “establishment,” and not the divergent preferences of a hand-picked, bused-in sample and the Republican electorate nationwide. This fiction now infects the debate about Ames’s future, because the Ames we read about is not the non-predictive, distortive Ames of reality, but a mythic creature in a story. And like so many mythic creatures, this one needs slaying.