Iowa’s Republican Governor Terry Branstad has recently said that the Republican Party of Iowa should consider doing away with the Iowa Straw Poll.The event is traditionally held the summer prior to the Iowa Caucuses on the campus of Iowa State University in Ames. It began as a way to show early strength ahead of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation January nominating contest, but it has instead become a kind of heyday for the politically impaired. Campaigns spend hundreds of thousands of-or in the case of Michelle Bachmann, a couple of million-dollars to try and get their supporters to the poll, wining and dining them and making sure they got the royal treatment so long as they got their votes in for the candidate. In Bachmann’s case, she literally “blew her wad” on the straw poll, banking that a strong showing there might catapult her to victory in January, giving her some momentum for later contests in Michigan, and Super Tuesday votes in Ohio and Tennessee. Bachmann finished first in Ames and last in Iowa, knocking out former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty along the way. Not surprisingly, current Iowa Republican Chairman A. J. Spiker doesnt agree with those who want to scrap the famous (or infamous) straw poll-and he shouldn’t be expected to, since the event raises a massive amount of money for the Iowa GOP.
The trouble with the Iowa Straw Poll is that it takes place months before the caucus itself, and as with any straw poll, a small fraction of the people voting in the contest itself are voting in a straw poll-one that takes place four to five months before their precinct caucuses at the very least. Not only is the sampling less than scientific, but people can and do change their minds in that span of time. None of this is to say that straw polls are bad in and of themselves-they are not. Straw polls are some of the best fundraisers that a local party can have, and if they are held fairly close to the voting they can be a much more accurate measure of activist sentiment, and activists are who vote in primaries and caucuses. As an example, several Tennessee county Republican Parties held presidential straw polls at their Lincoln or Reagan Day Dinners in the days preceding Tennessee’s Republican Primary on Super Tuesday, March 6th, 2012. Most of these straw votes occurred within a week or two-or in one case within just days before-Primary Day itself. A lot of the participants had already voted early when they voted in the polls, and most of these gave straw poll victories to former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.
Santorum won 91 of 95 Tennessee counties in the real Tennessee Primary. The candidates weren’t spending vast amounts of cash to get their folks to county straw polls or regional polls in Tennessee or many other Super Tuesday States because it was too close to the big day itself for them to spend time, money, and energy on straw polls. If people went to the trouble to come, pay, and vote, it was because they wanted to show support for their candidate, and because the real voting day wasn’t far off the straw polls turned out to be a harbinger of reality in many cases. The Iowa Straw Poll doesn’t work because it is too big, too far removed from voting day, and too much of a sideshow. Straw polls are fun and enjoyable exercises and fundraisers for local parties, but they are just that-fun. For them to really be something more than that they have to be local, close to voting day, and not too inflated by candidate cash. That isn’t the case in Iowa, which is why the Iowa Straw Poll is less a creative fundraiser for the Iowa GOP and more of a kind of political Circus Maximus.