The Bachmann effect: How she singlehandedly killed one of the GOP's most sacred (and pointless) traditions

Four years after Michele Bachmann won the Iowa Straw Poll, '16 candidates aren't interested in the fundraising scam

Published May 7, 2015 4:55PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Jason Reed)
(Reuters/Jason Reed)

The worst thing that ever happened to the God-fearing Heartland extortion ring known as the Iowa Republican Party was Michele Bachmann.

By winning the 2011 Iowa straw poll and then placing sixth in the 2012 Iowa caucuses, Bachmann demonstrated that the event is not -- repeat, not -- an accurate demonstration of a candidate's statewide organizing ability heading into the stretch. And if it's not that, then what is it? Just a big fundraiser for the Iowa Republican Party.

Bachmann won the straw poll the same way one might win a high school election: by giving people lots of free food. Literally throwing it at them, in fact. Also: ponying up for fancy live country music and prominent real estate on the straw poll grounds.

Taking no chances, Bachmann saturated Iowa with television ads in the run-up to the Straw Poll and barnstormed across the state in the final days before the vote. (On Friday, she did five events, including an evening rally in which she threw cornballs into the crowd and jitterbugged with her husband, Marcus, onstage.)

On site at Ames, her operation had the whiff of disorganization in its early hours as people formed long lines to get into her tent — where country singer Randy Travis was performing.

The Iowa Republican Party, meanwhile, fared quite well off of the land auction, ticket sales, and making all the candidates pay for their own power generators and food and so forth.

Bachmann's win suggested that the Iowa Straw Poll might be what seasoned political insiders refer to as a "fucking scam." The conservative movement has a pretty high tolerance for scams, sure, but why would candidates drop buckets of dough into a circus that Bachmann proved had no real value?

We're guessing that the Iowa Republican Party wasn't receiving a lot of commitments from candidates about participating in the scam this year, because its chairman, Jeff Kaufmann, is announcing some changes. In a Politico op-ed today, Kaufmann announces that "it is time to relegate the pay-to-play nature of the Iowa Straw Poll to the dustbin of history. (We’ll leave the 'pay to play' politics to the Clintons.)" Heh, those Clintons are sump'm else, alright. It's amusing to see him spin the changes as much-needed ethical reform rather than the sort of desperate move an entity makes when it has no leverage.

As to the changes: the land auction will be nixed, and candidates will receive space on the grounds free of charge, the specific sites determined by a random lottery. Candidates also won't have to prepare their own foodstuffs anymore, and every lot will be "already fully electrified." Kaufmann also promises attendees shuttles from distant parking lots. And then comes the most desperate moment in this already hilariously desperate column: "Finally, for journalists worried about internet and a suitable place to file your stories: We have you covered. The site has fantastic internet, sweeping vistas of Iowa farmland and a climate-controlled area for you to file as deadlines loom." (Journalists: don't give in yet! This sucker's on the ropes; we'll get him to pay for our requisite mani-pedis, stretch limos and caviar canapés before all's said and done.)

"Here in Iowa," Kaufmann pleads, "so long as a Republican candidate can afford the plane ticket to Iowa, they are welcome in Boone on August 8." These changes will definitely cut some of the costs -- indeed, it's amazing to think that the Iowa Republican Party ever did auction off lots and require candidates to pay for their own electricity.

It's not going to defray all the costs, though. The biggest of those would be media buys in television and radio markets surrounding the event. And candidates also have to be worried about managing expectations: while a win in the straw poll doesn't mean anything, a loss could still be quite embarrassing. Tim Pawlenty dropped out of the race after making a full push for the 2011 straw poll and finishing third. Is this something that, say, Scott Walker or any of the other top-tier Iowa candidates want to make a big show of?

It's probably a more effective use of resources to just continue driving around Iowa and meeting people as usual, rather than throwing a bunch of resources into this slightly less scammy version of what remains a scam.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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2016 Elections Editor's Picks Iowa Iowa Caucuses Iowa Straw Poll Jeff Kaufmann Michele Bachmann