Blame Michele Bachmann, who won the 2011 straw poll as bigger names like Romney and Rick Perry stayed away. Bachmann, the then-Minnesota congresswoman and Iowa native, proceeded to get bounced out of the presidential race five months later, when she became nothing but an afterthought with Iowans on caucus night. She dropped out of the contest the day after her sixth-place finish, the worst of anyone who competed. The straw poll had proved moot.
These days, without the top candidates competing, the straw poll simultaneously does little to encourage weaker candidates to take part and nothing to encourage them to give in to political reality. Brad Zaun, a state senator from the Des Moines suburb of Urbandale (and the chair of Bachmann’s 2011 caucus campaign) says that this year, he doesn’t expect anyone will get “weeded out” of the race because of the straw poll. How could they, when the stripped-down poll is in no way reflective of the larger political fight to come?
If they do get weeded, it won’t be because of Iowa this time. Former state party chairman Matt Strawn makes the case that the winnowing will be done instead by TV executives. The first Republican debate is scheduled for two days before the straw poll, and new network rules will use candidates’ standing in national polls to determine which ones get a spot on the crowded debate stage. The result? “The national debate cut-off nationalizes the race, diminishing Iowa’s role in vetting and vaunting long shots,” says Doug Gross, the GOP’s 2002 nominee for governor and former adviser to Mitt Romney’s Iowa campaign.