Yes, please: Iowa governor calls for end of Ames straw poll

posted at 8:01 pm on November 20, 2012 by Allahpundit

Does anyone not think this is a good idea?

“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.”…

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…

In an interview, Gov. Branstad pointed to Ms. Bachmann’s rapid rise and fall in 2011 as Exhibit A for why the straw poll no longer makes sense. The Bachmann campaign invested heavily in the one-day event, busing in thousands of supporters from around Iowa and hiring singers like Randy Travis to entertain them in a huge tent…

“You saw what happened the last time,” Gov. Branstad said. “I don’t think candidates will spend the time or money to participate in a straw poll if they don’t see any real benefit coming out of it.”

Remember, the straw poll is really just a fundraising stunt for the Iowa GOP. It’s a country fair with tents and music and barbecue and speeches and, eventually, a vote; it costs 30 bucks to get in, but the candidates are desperate enough to get people down there to cast their ballot that they’ll buy your ticket for you and bus you in if you’re willing to go. All of which would be sweet and adorable if it was just for funsies with no consequences. It isn’t. The outcome is the first tiny tea leaf of the primary season, which means the press — which is starved at that point for some sort of result to write about — goes berserk for it even though they should know better. Thus it came to be that Ames 2011 gifted us with the Michele Bachmann juggernaut while the vastly more electable Tim Pawlenty crashed on the launchpad and dropped out the next day. Finishing a distant third to Bachmann and Ron Paul was fatal to T-Paw because he’d spent a bunch of money trying to deliver voters to the poll and got nothing but a ream of “still no enthusiasm for Pawlenty” headlines for his trouble. Show of hands: Given what you now know about how effective the left’s Bain/tax returns/dressage attacks were on Romney, with his own comments about the “47 percent” the icing on the cake, who doesn’t wish the famously blue-collar T-Paw had stuck around and taken his chances in the Iowa caucuses? Remember, the Bachmann “bounce” from Ames lasted just eight weeks or so; she won the poll in mid-August and had sunk back to single digits by mid-October after the Gardasil fiasco. Maybe Pawlenty would have continued to flounder at the debates, or maybe not. We’ll never know. Thanks to Ames.

But maybe this situation is self-correcting. Any Republican with a plausible shot at the nomination in 2016 has every reason to skip Ames, and almost certainly will skip it or else contest it with ostentatious indifference. There’s too much risk of being Pawlenty’d by a longshot candidate like Bachmann who’s heavily invested in winning the poll as a way to jumpstart his/her candidacy. So even if Ames isn’t canceled — and the state GOP will fight it every step of the way — it may end up becoming the equivalent of a play-in game for dark horse candidates only to see who ends up as the lowest seed in the fall’s GOP primary tourney. Or maybe it’ll become a battlespace for candidates who are fighting for a particular niche of the electorate. E.g., if Huckabee runs in 2016 and is inclined to skip Ames but then Santorum decides he’ll contest it in hopes of winning and getting some buzz as the “true social conservative choice,” will that force Huck into contesting it too? In that case, you still have a “Pawlenty problem” potentially, where an otherwise viable contender is weakened from the bad press if he loses Ames. This is why cancellation is a good idea. It avoids these prisoner’s-dilemma scenarios.

Anyway. Now that that’s done, can we also agree that the similarly charming-yet-silly Iowa caucuses should be replaced with a statewide primary, if only to encourage GOP registration before the general election? Or better still, instead of following the traditional Iowa/New Hampshire/South Carolina three-step over the course of several weeks, why not have those three vote on the same day so that we have a multi-regional picture of how Republican voters view the field? If one candidate can win multiple states, great — he/she’s a legit frontrunner. If the three states split three ways, great — that’s a fun race and would ensure that no one steamrolls the rest of the opposition. The big worry would be that having to compete in multiple states would put poorer, less organized candidates at a disadvantage, but that risk also exists in the traditional scheme: A rich, organized candidate should, in theory, focus on Iowa and win there, then use his momentum and campaign advantages to cinch New Hampshire and mop up in South Carolina. That was Romney’s goal, in fact. Didn’t work out. Money and organization don’t always win, at least in the primaries.

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