For the past 35 years or so, anyone looking to win the Republican presidential nomination has had to make the difficult choice of whether to subject themselves to the Ames straw poll. Held by the Iowa GOP in the summer of the year before a presidential election, it’s a fundraiser/cattle call that sees presidential aspirants commit precious time and money towards convincing state Republican activists to pretend-vote for them for president.
There are three types of people who love the Ames straw poll: Republican activists, journalists, and Democrats. Republican activists love it because they get to fly their freak flags and cast meaningless votes for their fantasy picks for president. Journalists love it because they can use words like “shake up” and “game-changer” to vastly inflate the significance of the results. And Democrats love it because there’s a better than even chance that the winner of the straw poll will be the most outrageously conservative, and most embarrassing, candidate.
Case in point: the 2011 Ames straw poll. Michele Bachmann eked out a first-place finish, beating Ron Paul by less than one percent. In the aftermath, she was graced by journalists with that most blessed of political commodities: momentum. She hit the Sunday show circuit to talk up how she was the clear choice to take on Barack Obama in 2012, while Democrats happily mocked the GOP for their newly enshrined lunatic “frontrunner.” A few months later, when the actual voting began in Iowa, Bachmann finished sixth and then quit the race.
This result is typical of the Ames straw poll, which has an abysmal track record of actually predicting which candidate will win the Iowa caucus and the nomination. After last cycle’s Bachmann debacle, the more pragmatic arm of the GOP began complaining that the straw poll had become more of an embarrassing nuisance than anything else and lobbied for its elimination. “I believe that a number of candidates have chosen not to participate because they don't think it's necessarily representative,” Iowa governor-in-perpetuity Terry Branstad said last month.
There was some concern among the straw poll’s backers that it would conflict with new rules approved by the Republican National Committee aimed at locking down the primary process, given that it technically represented “voting” for candidates outside of the approved framework. But the RNC just came down with a new ruling saying that the Ames straw poll doesn’t violate the guidelines, mainly because it’s done for “entertainment” purposes:
In short, the straw poll has absolutely no bearing on the official presidential nomination process. Indeed, it is exactly the nature of the Iowa straw poll as simply a fundraising mechanism at an entertainment event for Republican activists and their families, with absolutely no connection to any primary, caucuses or state convention, that protects the straw poll from the requirements of Rule 16(a)(1).
The language of that memo invokes the disclaimers used by “psychics” and other con artists to escape legal liability for plying their bullshit trade – they’re not actually predicting your future; it’s “for entertainment purposes only.” And really that’s a fitting metaphor for the Ames straw poll, which is about as accurate as your average sidewalk palm reader.
But it’s not quite right to say the poll has “absolutely no bearing” on the nominating process. While it’s a poor predictor of who actually wins, it nonetheless gives life, vitality, and donor attention to longshot freak-show candidates. And it’s had the opposite effect of convincing otherwise earnest candidates that they’re just not going to cut it – Tim Pawlenty ended his 2012 campaign after finishing third in the Ames straw poll.
Either way, the Ames straw poll will endure. That should delight Ben Carson, Rick Santorum, and all the other cranks who stand an excellent chance of capturing the hearts of Iowa conservatives, if not the presidency.