Minnesotans Killed Our Straw Poll. Were they Just Jealous?
For thirty odd years, the Iowa GOP held a straw poll the summer before a presidential caucus. Voters could travel to Ames, buy a ticket and vote for their favorite candidate. Lots of merriment was had in the carnival like atmosphere, and by the end of the day a winner, who may or may not have had the legs to go the distance to the actual nomination, emerged. In 2011, Minnesota’s Michelle Bachmann won the Straw Poll. A few days later her campaign began to crumble, the national establishment branded her a kook and she faded from the political narrative. Meanwhile, affable everyman, Tim Pawlenty, dropped out of the race because of the whooping Bachmann handed him. By the time the caucus was over, many people, most prominently Gov. Terry Branstad, were complaining about the Straw Poll, saying: “We should be embarrassed that kooky Michelle Bachmann won the Straw Poll. If the only people who go to the Straw Poll are Michelle Bachmann types, we need to get rid of this thing so we aren’t embarrassed again.” Last week, after nearly four years of wrangling, the naysayers won and the Straw Poll died.
I’ve written before about the importance of the caucus and that I believe Iowans need to do their part to support the last vestige of retail politics in the national election. But getting rid of the Straw Poll doesn’t protect the caucus. In fact, the whole protect the caucus argument is just a canard to cover up the real reason the Straw Poll is gone: Tim Pawlenty made idiotic campaign decisions and the establishment wants to protect other establishment candidates from getting greedy and blowing all their campaign money on the Straw Poll. (I understand that the direct reason the Straw Poll died is because candidates weren’t signing up. But candidates weren’t signing up because the Straw Poll has been denigrated by the Gov. Branstad wing of the party since the Bachmann victory. It’s a chicken versus the egg thing. Had the direct reaction to the Straw Poll been ‘the Straw Poll is fine,’ there would still be a Straw Poll today.)
Let’s start off with some cold hard facts. The Straw Poll happened six times. The following people won the Straw Poll: George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, Bob Dole, Mitt Romney, Pat Robertson and Michelle Bachmann. You may notice that list contains the past two Republican Presidents, and that two other winners were official Republican nominees for president. I think I need to highlight that: 4 out of 6 people who won the Straw Poll were eventually Republican nominees. Put another way, every Republican nominee since 1988, other than John McCain, won the Straw Poll at some point. Even if some of those guys did not win the Straw Poll the cycle they got nominated, it is impossible to call those four individuals – 2/3 of the Straw Poll victors – hucksters or embarrassments.
So arguing that the Straw Poll has a long history of supporting kooks has no factual legs. For the most part, the Straw Poll picked people who would one day by the Republican nominee for president. Instead, the real argument against the Straw Poll rises and falls with Michelle Bachmann’s win in 2011. And here is the thing… Bachmann’s win wasn’t a fluke or the result of kooky Straw Poll voters supporting a kooky candidate. Michelle Bachmann’s campaign surged nationally during the summer of 2011. According to the handy poll tracker at Real Clear Politics, Mitt Romney was number one nationally in the summer of 2011, while Michelle Bachmann was number two. Mitt Romney didn’t participate in the Straw Poll in 2011, and Michelle Bachmann, the person with the second highest national polling numbers, won. The Straw Poll results accurately reflected where the Republican Party was at NATIONALLY during the summer of 2011.
Okay, so if the Straw Poll results aren’t skewed kooky over the long term, and Michelle Bachmann’s win was reflective of where the GOP was nationally during the summer of 2011, why did some people want to get rid of it so badly? The answer, as I said before, is not because of Michelle Bachmann, but rather because of Minnesota’s other candidate, Tim Pawlenty.
Besides his strategic failure, Pawlenty also had a practical failure at the Straw Poll. He did a poor job of making sure people he fed and entertained actually used their free tickets to vote for him. (In fact, Jon Huntsman, if you are reading this, I have a funny story to tell you about how Tim Pawlenty paid for most of your Straw Poll votes. Call me.) A lot of people took the Pawlenty t-shirt and ticket and then moseyed on over to the next tent. It should go without saying, but if you are going to hand out tickets for people for free, you need to pay attention and make sure those tickets are actually used to support you. Michelle Bachmann followed the lead of the Mob and made sure that the people she paid off actually voted her way. (Heck, even Herman Cain made sure that if you took his ticket you voted for him)
Pawlenty’s strategy boiled down to “free stuff for votes.” It really wasn’t a surprise that his plan melted like so many cones that hot summer’s day. The real surprise is the reaction. Tim Pawlenty is a likeable guy and late in 2011/12, a lot of establishment types wished that there was a mainstream Romney alternative. So, as they looked for someone to replace Mitt, Gov. Branstad and company decided to blame the Straw Poll for destroying Tim Pawlenty. Instead, they should have been blaming Tim Pawlenty for committing Straw Poll hara-kiri. Anyway, here we are. To protect future establishment candidates from indulging in the wish fulfillment fantasy that says “if I just spend enough money on handing voters Straw Poll bling, I can win and become president,” the Iowa GOP voted to kill Straw Poll. What a mistake.
Part 2: Straw Poll: Iowa’s National Republican Convention
As you may have gathered, there are several reasons why I think ending the Straw Poll is a bad idea. (None of which have anything to do with raising money for the Iowa GOP.)
My fantasy friend, Roger Simon, summed up my feelings when he tweeted “Iowa GOP votes to ban fun from Iowa.” The Straw Poll was the state fair for politicos. It was an absolute blast and I don’t feel bad saying that. I know some folks want to look down their nose at the antics of the Straw Poll, but America has a long tradition of mixing fun and politics. (Even if the Boston Tea Party was a bit of a misnomer.) When Washington was inaugurated, thousands lined the streets while battle ships fired off cannons, in the middle of the 19th Century people traveled hundreds of miles to see the Lincoln/Douglas Debates, while in the early 20th Century Midwesterners by the thousands filled Chautauqua tents to see Williams Jennings Bryan orate.
Call me a hopeless romantic, but I don’t see anything wrong with mixing politics, campaigning and a carnival atmosphere from time to time. (And for all their down-nose-looking, the party elites indulge in ridiculous carnivals every four years at the national conventions.) The Straw Poll was a special kind of political fun. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a night kibitzing with your friends about the upcoming American theocracy under President Ben Carson or designing a drinking game around a Joe Biden debate performance. But those things just cannot compete with getting outside with thousands of other Iowans and going from tent to tent, party to party, and listening to what political aspirants have to say. Best of all, the Straw Poll was open to anyone who had a few bucks to spare.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the caucuses are still going strong. Even without the Straw Poll, the potential Republican nominees have gathered for several multi-candidate events this cycle. But sitting inside all day listening to a parade of speeches is not remotely the same as the Straw Poll. Attending Steve King’s Freedom Summit was an endurance test, where the audience was left trying to figure out if they could walk down the road to a gas station to use the facilities before the next speaker started. You wouldn’t dare bring your kids to the Freedom Summit and even the most hardened Fox News’ fans were left thinking about the parking lot by the time Rick Perry took the stage.
The Straw Poll was something entirely different. You could listen to the ‘big’ speeches in the main hall, go listen to Randy Travis at Michelle Bachmann’s tent and then get some Godfather’s Pizza from Herman Cain. You could bring your kids because even if they weren’t thrilled about meeting Thad McCotter, they could eat ice cream and play games to their heart’s content. Maybe it was excessive, but it was undeniably fun. I know most of us, on either side, can agree that things would be better if more people were civically involved. Less than half the eligible voters turn out for off year elections, while little more than half vote in presidential years. Getting people out of their homes and involved in politics, even if at a carnival, is the first step towards broadening their civic engagement. I’ve been to a national political convention. They are great. I don’t know anyone who has been to a convention and not come away more involved interested in politics. The Straw Poll brought the atmosphere of a national convention to central Iowa for one day every four years. We should be sad the tradition is over.
The second reason that ending the Straw Poll is bad is because the Republican field needs the Straw Poll. And not the pie in the sky idealistic Straw Poll designed to ferment civic engagement that I just waxed poetic about. No, the GOP needs a down and dirty Straw Poll, the kind that seeks out candidates with poor campaign strategies and destroys them. Right now it looks like there will be between 15 and 20 people running for the GOP nomination. That is absolutely insane. Other than Paul family voters, every other major GOP constituency has several individuals vying for it. (Bush, Kasich, Gilmore for establishment GOP voters; Carson, Jindal, Santorum, and Huckabee for evangelical voters; Walker and Rubio for young establishment voters; and Graham, Pataki, and possibly Peter King for the John McCain – we want to bomb everyone, but are otherwise pretty moderate – voters.) Meanwhile, several lesser constituencies also have their own candidates. (Cruz for the Government is always, always, always bad voters; Fiorina for anti-Hillary, female, pro HP voters; Christie for pro-traffic jam voters; Rick Perry for anti-coyote voters; and Donald Trump for the oh-my-god wouldn’t this be awesome voters.)
I’m all for letting the democratic process play out. But, practically speaking, a field this large is going to be a nightmare. Just think of the logistics of caucus night. If you are at caucus where representatives from each of these candidates gets up to speak, it is going to take hours. A realistic outcome could be 17%, 16%, 14%, 12%, 10%, 8%, 6%, 4%, 3%, 2%, 2%, 2%,2%, 1% 1%. Everyone would be within the margin of error of someone else. (And we all remember what happened when the last caucus vote was too close to call.) Additionally, the margins are going to be so small that anything could change the outcome. When even a one percent shift will change the outcome, the campaigns will have no substance; everyone will be focused on who had the last gaffe before caucus night.
Additionally, no candidates will have any incentive to drop out. Everyone, from Jeb Bush to Carly Fiorina, will be able to look at the polls and say, hey, I’m within a few points of the lead. Playing the scenario out past Iowa, if a ton of candidates stay in the race, even if there is an identifiable leader, that person will never cross the nomination threshold and this will become the first convention fight in generations. (And there are plenty of rich folks out there to keep funding everyone’s Super PAC.) This is a doomsday scenario for the GOP.
I think most people are counting on the GOP Debates to thin the heard. And they probably will. But is that the right thing to do? I mean, the Straw Poll is not a perfect republican democracy, but at least it is real people casting real votes after seeing real campaigns. No one votes after a debate. It’s all polling. And you don’t need an organization to do well in debate. Just ask Mike Gravel. (But, the wisdom of the debate strategy is another blog for another day.) My main point is that something has to thin the heard of GOP candidates, and the Straw Poll is as good for that job as anything is.
I don’t know how this election cycle is going to turn out, but I’d wager money it is going to be a fiasco. (No, Mitt, not $10,000.) There is a good chance that having the Straw Poll would have helped control the chaos, if even just little. Hopefully, when all is said done, people can look back at the Straw Poll and realize that its benefits far outweighed its problems. When that day comes, hopefully someone calls and asks me about my great idea to merge the North Iowa Wing Ding and the Straw Poll into one super-duper bi-partisan civic carnival. Fun for the whole family…
by Jason Winter