Ed Kilgore notes today that the infamous Ames straw poll is less than a year away, at least if it actually takes place. There’s some talk about canceling it.

For those who don’t pay close attention to Republican presidential nomination politics, the much-ridiculed Ames event works like this: Anyone with a ticket can vote in the straw poll, so campaigns bus as many people as possible to the event (and pay for the tickets). Ames rarely predicts the winner of the the Iowa caucuses the following winter, much less who will win the nomination. However, the ritual does appear to play a winnowing role (for example, in 2012, Tim Pawlenty dropped out after disappointing at Ames).

Since any resemblance to rigorous procedural democracy is purely incidental, and because it’s a silly (and costly and time-consuming) hoop for candidates to have to jump through, Ames is reviled by almost everyone except the Iowa Republican Party, which profits directly from it.

Oh, and me. I have nothing against the Ames straw poll.

To understand Ames, it’s important to understand how and why it matters. The context is the invisible primary, the long (long, long) portion of the campaign before voters get involved when party actors — the politicians, formal party officials and staff, campaign and governing professionals, activists, party-aligned interest groups and party-aligned partisan media who have the biggest say in nomination politics — coordinate and compete over the nominee and the direction of the party. Ames is important only if those party actors treat it as important.

So, for example, it really didn’t matter that Michele Bachmann finished first at Ames in 2011, because very few party actors were even marginally interested in her. Nor did it matter how Ron Paul did in that event, because almost all party actors had long since made up their mind up about him. Pawlenty’s case was different. He had already fallen flat in debates and in other ways. It’s not so much that Ames destroyed him as that it was his last chance to show party actors that there was something they were missing about his candidacy. When he did poorly there, too, it was time for him to drop out.

In 2008, Ames may have put Mike Huckabee in the driver’s seat with Christian conservatives, though it’s also possible it just registered a victory that already had happened. If Ames did have an independent effect, however, it probably was among a group of people who werelooking for an excuse to choose among very similar contenders. That Ames was (perhaps) enough to make a difference is less about the outsized importance of a screwy straw poll and more about a group using whatever was available to choose between two almost-equals. If it hadn’t been Ames, it would have been something else equally arbitrary.

Which is really the answer here. No one uses the Ames straw poll as some sort of binding contract. Party actors are free to use it as they see fit — just as they use fundraising success, debate performances, polling data and reports of crowd reactions to stump speeches. Ames is no more of a joke than any of those, and there’s no particular reason to believe that it’s used any more seriously, except when party actors are looking for some arbitrary method of forcing their own decision.

So have fun pointing out the limitations of the Ames straw poll. But then realize that it’s a perfectly fine part of the Republican nomination process.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

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Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.