The Ames Straw Poll in Iowa is a fabulous perversion of democracy, a bus-laden bribe festival where Republican presidential hopefuls waste lots of money. This is how it works: Major Republican campaigns each spend several million dollars to transport their supporters in August to the coliseum at Iowa State University. Then the campaigns buy their supporters tickets, which allow their supporters to vote. Whichever campaign wins the totally unrepresentative tally gets to claim bragging rights. Whichever campaigns underperform tend to abandon all hope and drop out of the race.
Until Wednesday, we political reporters were looking forward to the circus because political reporters like circuses. The Iowa Republican Party was also excited, since it stood to make millions of dollars selling tickets. But now everything has changed.
In a conference call Wednesday morning, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani announced, via his campaign manager, that he would not be competing in the straw poll. The stated reason is the primary calendar, which is compressed, with a record number of states voting in just a few weeks in early 2008, requiring careful distribution of money. The unstated reason is that Giuliani is not going to do well in Iowa.
Giuliani's announcement was a huge gift to John McCain, who announced hours later that he would also preemptively pull out of Ames. "In light of today's news, it is clear that the Ames Straw Poll will not be a meaningful test of the leading candidates," said campaign manager Terry Nelson in an e-mail. That is the stated reason for pulling out. The unstated reasons are that McCain needs to save money, and he is worried that Mitt Romney will clean his clock in the straw poll.
That leaves Romney as the big loser of the day. He is rising in many recent Iowa polls, and was clearly hoping to use a strong showing at Ames as proof of his electability. Now, no one will care when he wins. His spokesman, Kevin Madden, declared victory anyway. "It looks as if we just beat those campaigns in Iowa two months earlier than we had planned on beating them," he announced in an e-mail.
Meanwhile, the Iowa Republican Party, as the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder points out in his excellent new blog, decided to throw a hissy fit. "The Republican Party of Iowa is disappointed over [Giuliani's] decision, but more so over his lackluster campaign efforts in Iowa. Giuliani's efforts in the Hawkeye State have also been disappointing for many Iowans who have not had the opportunity to see, hear, meet or question the former New York Mayor."
By the way, Democrats have many headaches, but the straw poll is not one of them. Many years ago, the donkey party decided to ban meaningless straw polls. Two words: Smart ass.