The Ames Straw Poll got underway in Iowa today, and CNN and the national media have turned their collective eyes toward what is being hailed as an important moment in politics. But is it really? Or is it a lot of well-publicized hype over nothing much?
The Ames Straw Poll has been billed as a bellwether of Republican political trend. However, the straw poll is taken in August each presidential election cycle and has as yet picked only one presidential winner since 1979 (George W. Bush) and only two candidates that were actually nominated for president by the GOP. It has in the past chosen such presidential long shots as televangelist Pat Robertson and Texas economist and senator Phil Gramm. Most recently (2008), the straw poll put Mitt Romney at the top.
Part of the problem of the straw poll being anything more than a glorified extension of the Iowa State Fair or just another GOP convention where presidential hopefuls can “preach to the choir” is that it occurs far too early in the election cycle. The Ames Straw Poll occurs nearly six months before the first primary, which also happens to be in Iowa (a Caucus, held the first week of February). In its defense, it has chosen three of the five GOP winners of the Iowa Caucus since 1979. Still, once complete, there are six months of presidential hopeful campaigning, six months of politicking, six months of fundraising, and six months of non-stop political coverage and investigative reporting on each candidate, with those that appear to be frontrunners usually gaining the most scrutiny.
It is, simply put, six months of attrition.
And this year’s straw poll also has the drawback — partially due to it being held early and partially due to potential candidates remaining undecided on whether or not to enter the race — of not having on its nine-person ballot (larger than usual) two contenders for the GOP nomination that could eventually take the nomination. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, although in Iowa, has as yet remained undeclared as a candidate and says she will make her decision either this month or in September. The other contender, Texas governor Rick Perry, made his announcement of running for president in South Carolina the same day as the straw poll.
But both Palin and Perry, both of whom generate excitement among Republicans even as latecomers to the race, still have a chance to do well in the poll — even win it. Pressure from supportive agents and those primarily dissatisfied with the field of Republican candidates were instrumental in allowing for write-ins for the first time in the straw poll’s history.
At present, Iowa native Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., seems to have the edge over national frontrunner Mitt Romney in Iowa polling. Although placing well in most polls, she is considered a long shot for the nomination and the presidency.
So what good is the Ames Straw Poll if it really doesn’t indicate a trend or occurs too early to consider latecomers? It helps narrow the field of contenders, for one thing. According to CNN, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who has seen a bit of fundraising woe, said that he might leave the race if he doesn’t place well in the poll. Georgia businessman and Tea Party favorite Herman Cain said that he would have to reevaluate his campaign if he didn’t make the top three on the poll.
There is also another good reason to conduct the Ames Straw Poll. Mark Miller, GOP state party finance director in 1987, told PBS that it was “a fund-raising gimmick for the state party and nothing more than that.” Each vote costs $30, although a voter can only vote once (and some campaigns reimburse or pay some of the voters’ participation fees). The event generates hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Iowa Republican Party.
The fact that the Republican straw poll has gained national attention over the years can only be seen as a bonus to its organizers. Whether or not it is anything other than an early method of removing the hopeful chaff from the more viable grain — and raising a lot of money for local politics — remains questionable.