Seriously, it's time to end the Ames straw poll

Over the years, I have reached a different conclusion: The Iowa Straw Poll is one of the most insidious events in politics. Even though the straw poll is about as scientific as sorcery, political reporters over-hype the results and pretend that they mean something. The upshot is that fringe candidates can get an unwarranted boost and serious candidates can be prematurely eliminated before most Iowa caucus-goers, let alone most Republicans elsewhere, have a chance to decide on their preferences. Yet, despite all of the straw poll’s obvious flaws, and even as some candidates boycott it—John McCain in 2007; Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman this year—nothing, it seems, can dim the prominence of this ersatz election…

The straw poll is, at its core, a fundraising vehicle for the state party, which has to pay for holding next year’s caucuses. The bulk of the revenue comes from a poll tax; voting in Ames requires a $30 ticket. Iowa Republican Chairman Matt Strawn told me that this year’s straw poll “will net upward of six figures” (though he also stressed that “it is extremely expensive to host the straw poll in Ames”). The tickets are often distributed to attendees by the campaigns themselves. This creates the ethical dilemma of whether you are obligated to support the candidate who paid for your ticket and sometimes even bused you to the site.

Moreover, the Republicans who will attend the event on August 13 are not exactly a cross-section of next year’s Iowa caucus-goers. In truth, the straw poll is akin to the smallest of Russian nesting dolls. Think about it this way: In November 2008, 682,000 Iowa voters cast their ballots for McCain. The 119,000 Republicans who participated in the 2008 caucuses were the party stalwarts. But the 14,000 Republicans who voted in the 2007 straw poll were a microcosm of that microcosm—just 12 percent of the caucus attendees and a microscopic 2 percent of McCain voters. Not surprisingly, this tiny segment of the GOP electorate is often the most fervent. Imagine how committed you have to be to travel for, say, six hours round-trip to Ames to sit in an un-air-conditioned tent in August in the hope that your favored candidate will win a fake election.