Iowa straw poll a political sideshow


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Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad made headlines last week when he told the Wall Street Journal that he believes the Ames Straw Poll — the Iowa GOP’s informal presidential nominating contest held every fourth August at Iowa State University — has “outlived its usefulness.”

Not quite three years away from the next straw poll, it is easy to attribute this backlash to a post-election hangover, but there are real problems with the quadrennial event. The Ames Straw Poll unnecessarily extends the campaign season, artificially influences candidates when their campaigns are in their infancy, and has no predictive power whatsoever.

The Ames Straw Poll occurs 14 months before the presidential election and more than four months prior to the nation’s first Republican nominating contest, the Iowa caucuses. Pre-election zeal and a traditionally sparse late-summer news cycle have combined to make the straw poll into a gussied-up excuse to extend the excruciatingly drawn-out process of electing the president by a few extra months.  

The timing, of course, has been a constant feature of the straw poll. What has changed in recent election cycles is the amount of attention heaped on the event. The media environment dominated by 24-hour cable news and the Internet is dependent on the unrelenting intake of information and the constant output of easily-digested stories. As such, the amount of coverage of the Ames Straw Poll — and the amount speculation surrounding it — has gone up dramatically.

With more eyes than ever on Iowa, the results of the straw poll have begun to take on a seriously oversized amount of influence. The Ames Straw Poll is now capable of substantially affecting the GOP nominating process to the point that Tim Pawlenty’s third-place finish in 2011 essentially ended his campaign. Considering how few people participate in the straw poll — about 17,000 in 2011 — and how many of those participants are simply bused in by candidates from parts unknown, an Iowa straw poll with the power to end a presidential campaign four months prior to any real contest is a frightening prospect.

Despite its unfortunate power to cripple fledgling campaigns, however, the straw poll has virtually no influence on actual nominating contest outcomes. Michele Bachmann won the 2011 straw poll and ultimately got sixth place in the caucuses after Iowans got a chance to meet her. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, finished seventh in the straw poll; Rick Perry, who hadn’t even entered the race yet, finished ahead of Romney with only write-in support. Romney, of course, went on to take a narrow second in the Iowa Caucuses and eventually win the Republican nomination.

Further illustrating the straw poll’s disassociation from reality, Romney actually won the straw poll in 2007 before losing the Iowa caucuses to Mike Huckabee and the Republican nomination to John McCain.

Clearly, the straw poll has taken on far too much significance for a contest that serves only to convert unrepresentative votes into unreliable outcomes. Still, some, such as Iowa GOP chairman A.J. Spiker, believe the Ames Straw Poll should remain in place.

“I believe the Iowa straw poll is possibly the best way for a presidential campaign to organize (put in place county and precinct leaders and  activate them) for Iowa’s first in the nation caucus,” Spiker said in a statement in response to Branstad.

Given Iowa’s position at the frontline of the presidential nominating process, however, candidates have plenty of incentive to organize and appear in Iowa regardless of the straw poll. At the end of the day, the Ames Straw Poll is a political sideshow run amok, and Branstad is right to question its relevance.

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