The straw poll is gone. Now can we kill off the Iowa caucus?

Iowa Republicans are aware of these parallels, which (as this excellent reporting from the Des Moines Register’s Jennifer Jacobs describes) may have been some of their motivation to cancel the straw poll. If the Iowa Straw Poll seems too much like a political carnival and too rarely picks viable candidates, “it’s a pretty easy leap in terms of logic to take the next step and say the caucuses aren’t important,” said Drew Ivers, chairman of Ron Paul’s 2012 Iowa campaign, in an interview with Jacobs.

But it’s also important to consider the straw poll — and the caucuses — from the standpoint of Republicans outside of Iowa. The entire presidential nomination process is largely controlled by the parties. Voters play an important role in vetting and vetoing candidates, especially when there are too many candidates whom party leaders find acceptable or too few. But both formal (state and national Republican party organizations) and informal (Republican elected officials, donors, operatives and commentators) party networks have an almost unlimited set of tools at their disposal to influence events. They set the schedule for primaries and caucuses and control the method of delegate selection. They can direct financial resources and favorable media attention toward a candidate or “nuke” him when he becomes a threat to a preferred nominee. And they can nudge the scales when officiating disputes: It wasn’t an accident that Iowa Republicans quickly and prematurely declared the establishment-backed Mitt Romney as the winner of their 2012 caucus and then only reluctantly acknowledged that it had been Rick Santorum instead after an error in vote tabulations was uncovered.

From the standpoint of the parties, the purpose of the Iowa Straw Poll is not necessarily to pick winners but to narrow (or “winnow”) the field. (In some years, this applies to the Iowa caucus too.
) In that sense, the biggest danger from the straw poll is not a “false positive” — an insurgent candidate like Michele Bachmann winning when she has little shot at the nomination — but rather a “false negative,” meaning an establishment candidate like Tim Pawlenty making a big bet on the straw poll and coming up with a disappointing performance, as happened four years ago.

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