As Republicans in Iowa and across the country ponder how to improve their chances in the next presidential election, bashing the Ames straw poll is all the rage.
Most strategists and politicians recognize that the Republican Party of Iowa needs to dump or radically reinvent its largest pre-caucus fundraiser, traditionally held during the August before the Iowa caucuses. But a few people can't read the writing on the wall.
Governor Terry Branstad made a splash last week in this interview with the Wall Street Journal.
"I think the straw poll has outlived its usefulness," Mr. Branstad said of the 33-year-old GOP ritual. "It has been a great fundraiser for the party but I think its days are over." [...]
In an interview, Gov. Branstad pointed to Ms. Bachmann's rapid rise and fall in 2011 as Exhibit A for why the straw poll no longer makes sense. The Bachmann campaign invested heavily in the one-day event, busing in thousands of supporters from around Iowa and hiring singers like Randy Travis to entertain them in a huge tent.
The Minnesota Republican beat libertarian Rep. Ron Paul of Texas by 150 votes, but never caught fire in Iowa. She came in a very distant sixth in the January Iowa caucuses, getting just 5% of the vote.
"You saw what happened the last time," Gov. Branstad said. "I don't think candidates will spend the time or money to participate in a straw poll if they don't see any real benefit coming out of it."
Branstad's comments spurred a wave of national media speculation about the straw poll, but he was hardly breaking new ground. The previous week, all the guests on Iowa Public Television's "Iowa Press" program agreed that change needs to come. Doug Gross had long been in the "dump Ames" camp. Neither Republican National Committeewoman Tamara Scott (a prominent social conservative) nor Republican blogger Craig Robinson defended the straw poll as currently organized.
Henderson: Mrs. Scott, in August of 2015 will there be a straw poll in Ames or is that an antiquated notion that we should just never have one again?
Scott: I can't answer that. That would be up to the matters of the party to decide.
Henderson: But aren't you a party leader now?
Scott: I am the national committeewoman but I don't think I get that kind of authority yet.
Henderson: Do you think it's a --
Borg: You have a personal opinion on it.
Scott: I think it served a purpose. In 1998 I was thrilled to be there. It got people out. It got involved, people were involved. It was good to see the numbers. I think obviously in the last year it became a little more of a who had the money to purchase what spot where and bring in what entertainer and I hate to see politics reduced to that. I think that we have lost some of the issues and some of the ground because it has become such a long, drawn out process here in Iowa and I think that feeds to the apathy of the Iowa people.
Henderson: Mr. Gross has made his thoughts on this well known. He thinks it should end. Mr. Robinson, do you think the nail should be driven --
Robinson: I do agree and in fact, I actually think it is the candidates themselves who will determine if there is a straw poll that year, not the party. And I think its time has come and I think there are things that can replace it that would be similar but we can't have something that culls the herd, so to speak, like it is now.
Obradovich: Why not have a big event, let them all speak and not take a vote?
Robinson: Right, no I think you have to eliminate the vote. The idea to bring in a presidential debate was kind of born right after the 2007 straw poll where you can kind of give candidates a different way to play it. And so I think we have to reassess and maybe change our approach on some things.
Today the editors of the conservative National Review called for ditching the event.
Though Branstad will not ultimately decide whether the poll returns in 2015 - that decision is up to the state's party and the candidates, among others - we hope that he's prescient. Ames does more damage than justice to the nominating process, and ensures that the country's first view of the Grand Old Party's latest presidential crop is through a distorted lens.
Consider that in the poll's 30-year-plus history it has correctly prefigured the eventual nominee just twice, in the persons of Senator Bob Dole and Governor George W. Bush, in 1995 and 1999, respectively, and only the latter went on - narrowly - to the White House. This go-round, the poll was won by Representative Michele Bachmann, who would falter in the early debates and capture just 5 percent of total primary votes. Representative Ron Paul, of being-Ron Paul fame, finished less than a percentage point behind in second. Whatever one thinks of Paul's import or his place in conservative conversation, he was never in danger of winning the Republican nomination, in this or any neighboring universe. [...]
In fact, the spotlight is part of the problem. The media as much as anyone have imbued the story of Ames with an import that the reality of Ames has not justified - and cannot justify. And they help sell the fiction that the straw poll highlights the divergent preferences of the "grassroots" and the "establishment," and not the divergent preferences of a hand-picked, bused-in sample and the Republican electorate nationwide. This fiction now infects the debate about Ames's future, because the Ames we read about is not the non-predictive, distortive Ames of reality, but a mythic creature in a story. And like so many mythic creatures, this one needs slaying.
Any clear-thinking Iowa Republican should recognize that continuing the status quo is not an option. Serious presidential candidates will skip the event rather than risk ending up like Tim Pawlenty.
To listen to Iowa GOP Chair Spiker, though, you'd think Branstad dreamed up this idea out of nowhere.
"Gov. Branstad is wrong, and this is not a decision he will make anyway," said a peeved A.J. Spiker, chairman of the state GOP. "It is a decision the party and the candidates will make."
Diplomacy was never the Ron Paul crowd's strong suit. Then, when he should have been cooling off, Spiker ratcheted up his invective against his own party's governor.
Spiker sees the moves against the straw poll as part of "a continued effort to make sure that the political industry selects candidates rather than the grassroots." Spiker maintains the straw poll "is probably the best opportunity ... to plant some grassroots and put in place a infrastructure for the Iowa Caucus" and believes the push to end it are parallel to the controversial efforts in Tampa by the Romney campaign for "more consolidation of power" among party elites.
I think Spiker's analogy is apt, but for a different reason. Like his deep concern about Ron Paul delegates from Maine before the Republican National Convention, Spiker's commitment to the straw poll indicates that he and like-minded "Paulinistas" are more focused on building influence within the GOP than on helping Republican candidates win presidential elections.
Conservative talk radio host Steve Deace, a leading voice against moving to the middle, was incensed by Branstad's comments about the straw poll.
"The only people who hate conservatives more than Democrats are people like Terry Branstad," Deace said. He went on to scathingly describe the Republican governor's political influence in the state saying, "I'd almost rather have Barack Obama's endorsement in 2016 than Terry Branstad's; it tells all the Ron Paul and social conservatives who not to vote for."
In Deace's eyes, Branstad's statement is "a preemptive strike aimed at conservatives" to keep establishment control of the Republican Party, and specifically aimed at "trying to stop Rand Paul."
That's about what I'd expect from a guy who blames Mitt Romney for the "traditional marriage" movement's election-day setbacks.
Speaking to reporters today, Branstad floated an idea for holding several events around the state, rather than a single fundraiser in Ames.
Branstad reiterated that a party fundraiser that increases the visibility of candidates in the months before the caucuses is a good thing. It's the presence of a preference poll that doesn't represent the true caucus electorate that is problematic.
"The event, I think, is great," he said. "In fact, what I've suggested is let's replace one event with relational group of events and give people in all different parts of the state and opportunity to participate and see the candidates."
Sounds reasonable to me, although the candidates might be reluctant to add more joint events to the many debates scheduled during the run-up to the caucuses.
Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.