A key part of the nifty money-influence-and-attention game that the conservative activists of Iowa play with their control over a key choke-point in the presidential nominating process is the Ames Straw Poll. Held the summer before each presidential election since 1979, the Straw Poll is a minor masterpiece in the art of making mountains out of molehills. Competing presidential campaigns buy tickets to his hothouse affair, often considered the first real “event” of the cycle, and then distribute them to willing attendees, who are then typically bussed from around the state to Ames, given a box lunch, and sent forth to do battle for headlines and hype, with the proceeds going into the hungry maw of the state party. Campaigns also bid for prime space around the snug confines of the Iowa State University’s Hilton Coliseum to pitch their tents, serve their beverages and propaganda, and sometimes offer celebrity entertainment (viz. Randy Travis’ appearance for 2011 Straw Poll winner Michele Bachmann).
Much mocked by rational political observers (last time a Straw Poll winner actually won the GOP presidential nomination was in 2000) who ask why a handful of paid activists (just under 17,000 in 2011) participating in a non-binding measurement of grossly premature sentiment should get the massive attention it invariably draws, the Ames Straw Poll has had an occasionally significant effect nonetheless. In 2007, Mitt Romney more or less purchased a Straw Poll win, but the buzz was around second-place finisher Mike Huckabee, who consolidated his hold on the state’s very important Christian Right community at Ames and went on to upset Romney in the Iowa Caucuses, a development that eventually produced the nomination of John McCain. And in 2011, a heavy and unsuccessful investment in Ames actually croaked the candidacy of Tim Pawlenty, the early smart-money favorite for the nomination. Later on, when Mitt Romney struggled for months to nail down the nomination against such hapless opponents as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, T-Paw’s Ames disaster loomed large.
In any event, in the early maneuvering for 2016, criticism of the Ames Straw Poll has reached critical mass, not just in national GOP circles but in Iowa itself, where Republican Gov. Terry Branstad has argued for killing it off. One would like to think Branstad and others like him are coming over to the rational POV about events like Ames (though the same arguments might dangerously apply to the Iowa Caucuses themselves), but it’s more probable that it represents an internal Iowa GOP power struggle, mostly attributable to the extraordinary hostility among all sorts of Republican activists towards a state party apparatus conquered by the minions of the Ron Paul Revolution in 2012 through their usual Trotskyist tactics.
Additionally, some of the small but hardy band of Iowa Republicans who are not red-meat-gnawing constitutional conservatives (and who generally consider Branstad their champion) would like to reduce the power of said red-meat-gnawers on their party and on the Caucuses, which is inevitably enhanced by small-turnout/high-intensity events like the Straw Poll. But here’s where the story gets weird: self-styled Iowa Kingmaker Bob Vander Plaats, a Christian Right potentate who was an early backer of the last two Caucus winners, has modestly offered to let his own FAMiLY LEADER organization’s annual meeting serve as the successor to the Straw Poll. As a hint, Vander Plaats has moved his annual meeting to Ames, and scheduled it for the same August weekend when the Straw Poll has traditionally been held. BVP connects the dots for the Des Moines Register‘s Jennifer Jacobs:
“I’m not sure what the future of the straw poll is, but if the straw poll doesn’t take place, this event is going to be poised to be a magnet for candidates and for the base to really get a look at who they want to support in the caucus,” said Bob Vander Plaats, president of the Family Leader and organizer of Saturday’s summit, which features Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum.
If the national GOP is going to let the Iowa GOP exert vastly disproportional influence on its presidential nominating process, and if the Iowa GOP is going to let people like Vander Plaats exert vastly disproportionate influence on the Caucuses, then there’s something to be said for cutting out the middleman and just letting the FAMiLY LEADER vet the field its own self. It’s only slightly less absurd than anything else about the nominating process as it currently stands. More importantly, it’s a reminder that national Republican “strategists” can talk all they want about “rebranding” and finding the most “electable” presidential candidate: they still have to deal with the power of “the base” in the early states.