Iowa to Keep “Fun Vote?”

I have pretty good sources in Iowa, but have to say, I don’t really understand the Kabuki Theater going on in the Republican Party there about the tradition of the Ames Presidential Straw Poll. Gov. Terry Branstad, who recently conducted a hostile takeover of the Iowa Republican Party apparatus from its previous Paulite ownership, has publicly called for ending the Straw Poll, but is now acting like he has zero control over the decision. The state party chair, Jeff Kaufmann, a Branstad ally, has sought a RNC opinion that the event does not violate national party rules by setting up a semi-official vote before voting is authorized; it’s not clear why it would be in violation now but not the previous six times it has been held. If it’s legal, says Kaufmann, and if it won’t lose money (it’s been the principal state party fundraiser for the presidential cycle in the past), then the party is inclined to put it on as usual next August.

So why all the public agonizing over it? Beats me, though reading between the lines it sounds like Branstad and Kaufmann are trying to figure out a way to convince all the candidates to come to Ames and throw a ton of money into an event, but either without a straw poll or a straw poll that somehow isn’t taken as seriously as those of the recent past. Here’s how Kaufmann puts it:

The straw vote should be seen for what it is: as a tradition that adds flavor to an entertaining event, he said.

“Unfortunately sometimes it’s taken as a serious vote and overemphasized,” Kaufmann said. “This straw poll is a meaningless vote. There is not a shred of scientific authenticity that this straw poll means anything. We should look at it as a fun vote.”

Yeah, tell that to Tim Pawlenty, whose campaign was croaked by an expensive third-place finish in Ames in 2012, or Sam Brownback, who lost an informal Christian Right battle with Mike Huckabee at Ames in 2008 and soon dropped out. More to the point, how do you get campaigns to pay tens of thousands of dollars for tent-space in Ames and then hundreds of thousands of dollars for delegate tickets and buses and box lunches and what-not for a “fun vote.”

So I don’t know what’s really going on. It was already going to be a struggle to convince Iowa’s well-heeled and powerful conservative groups to bag Ames, which has pretty much been their playground. Steve King, who’s a pretty big deal in Iowa, has unambiguously demanded things stay the way they are.

This may seem like much ado over nothing, but since Ames has traditionally been the first “winnowing” event of the presidential cycle, it’s kind of important whether it’s going to happen or not. If it devolves into a non-competitive cattle call, or one of a series of regional events (which Branstad has suggested in the past), then it will largely become indistinguishable from the stuff that happens in Iowa every weekend in the long, long runup to the Caucuses. And without the lash of the Straw Poll, it’s possible some of the pressure to pander to crazy people 24/7 will be reduced; it was no accident that Michele Bachmann won this event last time around.

It’s hard for me to believe that the leadership of the Iowa GOP is as irresolute about the whole thing as they appear right now. But we’ll have to know what they are going to do well before the snowdrifts turn black and Iowans start running into presidential candidates every time they leave home.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.