What should we think of the Ames Straw Poll as part of the nomination process? Polls and Votes and the Monkey Cage’s Joshua Tucker argue it’s not predictive of nomination success; Nate Silver says that it is, a little. The Nation’s Ben Adler has quite a bit of contempt for it.
I sort of think they’re all thinking about it the wrong way. I had a TNR column last week that I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet over here in which I made the case for Ames (although not quite as enthusiastically as the headline they gave me might have made it seem). Basically, I think the best way to think about Ames is as an unusually visible event within the invisible primary. And as with all events within the invisible primary, what’s important is the signals that various party actors are sending to each other as they try to compete and coordinate on their way to choosing a nominee, and the way that the candidates attempt to appeal to those actors.
From that perspective, it’s not that Ames knocked Pawlenty out, and it’s certainly not that (as Adler has it) the media arbitrarily decided to call Ames a big deal and drove Pawlenty out by arbitrarily setting high expectations for him. No, what I’d say happened is that Pawlenty had failed for several months to impress various party actors, and that Ames signaled that he wasn’t interesting activists, either. Since Pawlenty was (apparently) actually running for president and not using the nomination process to win a spot on Fox News or sell books, he had no point in continuing once that was decided. But the point is that the decision-makers here weren’t primarily the folks at Ames — they were the various active participants in the Republican Party. That is, and regular readers will recognize this list, campaign and governing professionals, formal party staff and officials, activists, politicians, and members of party-aligned interest groups and media. The story certainly appears to be that collectively, those folks had come to the conclusion that while Pawlenty was acceptable to them on public policy and was probably as likely to be an adequate president as any of the other contenders, he was simply an electoral dud. They may have been wrong about that! It’s not a science. On the other hand, they need to make choices, and it’s basically a good, healthy sign that they care about electoral viability. Meanwhile, since no constituency within the party was willing to push hard for him, well, you know what happened.
[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]