Straw Poll Revisionism

To be clear, I don’t think the Iowa GOP Straw Poll is necessarily a big deal, much less that it ought to be. I write about it because, well, I write about just about everything in the political news, and also because an awful lot of people seem to get an awful lot wrong about Iowa.

All this is by way of explaining that I’m doing another post about the upcoming Iowa Straw Poll in August partly because it’s traditionally been the starting gun for the GOP nomination fight; partially because there’s going to be endless speculation about who’s in and who’s out during the next few weeks; and most immediately because people are writing misleading things about the history and implications of the event.

Here it is in a National Journal piece by Adam Wollner, which in turn was quoted by WaPo’s Jennifer Rubin in urging all the candidates to boycott the Straw Poll:

Tim Pawlenty’s fate in the 2011 straw poll, however, offers a cautionary tale of what can happen if leading candidates perform worse than expected. A third-place finish so badly bruised the front-running Minnesota governor that he was forced [to] drop out of the 2012 GOP primary race altogether.

Well, not exactly. Tim Pawlenty was forced to drop out of the 2012 race because he spent all his money pursuing that third-place finish in Ames, as was understood at the time, per this report from Politico‘s Martin and Cogan in August of 2011:

Pawlenty was unable to raise a significant amount of money and spent much of what he did bring in on TV and radio in the lead-up to Ames. Pawlenty had originally hoped to emerge as the chief alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, but he found himself pinned down in Iowa over the past six weeks trying to fend off the surging Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.

So no, Jeb Bush isn’t skipping the Straw Poll because he thought he might wind up like poor TPaw; Pawlenty’s entire budget for 2012 would be a rounding error in Jeb’s this cycle. And even the first-tier candidates still struggling with the decision to fish or cut bait with the Straw Poll, Walker and Rubio, aren’t going to go belly-up if they compete in Boone but lose, because they’ll have the money to keep on keeping on.

What the decision is really about is how important Iowa is to each candidate’s strategy. Bush can take Iowa or leave it; he’s playing the long game and has other relatively early states he should be strong in (i.e., New Hampshire and Florida). Walker, however, even though he’s doing pretty well everywhere right now, doesn’t have any states where he’s a near-perfect fit for quite some time. And here’s the key thing to understand: the pressure to compete in the Straw Poll is just an extension of the general pressure exerted by Iowa to compel candidates to come play there out of fear that a bad start to the campaign will cripple them and elevate someone else. Some Iowa Republicans, like Gov. Terry Branstad, dislike the Straw Poll not because he thinks it’s an idiotic nothing-burger of an event that shouldn’t mean much, but because he fears the widespread media and party elite contempt for the event is threatening the state’s much bigger stakes in the Caucuses.

In any event, even if the Big Boys stay out of Boone, the odds are high that the Straw Poll will still attract second-tier candidates who want to kill each other off and create some elbow room in the crowded field. The real function of the Straw Poll is as a winnower of weak candidacies. TPaw wasn’t going anywhere in 2012 despite his on-paper potential. In 2008, the Straw Poll disposed of Sam Brownback, who was Mike Huckabee’s chief rival to become the Christian Right champion in the field. Huck went on to win the Caucuses after finishing second in Ames. No telling how many weak candidates this year’s Straw Poll could kill off; but you have to figure Santorum, Huckabee, Carson and Cruz are in some danger of being winnowed, along with the Patakis of the world (Carly Fiorina will survive if she competes because the GOP wants her on that debate stage, which come to think of it, is a good reason for her not to bother to compete in Boone; some other minor candidates like Graham may not play because they don’t care about Iowa.).

My guess is that someone very soon will bust up any idea of a party-wide boycott of the Straw Poll, if only to harvest the appreciation of Iowans who really do count on raising money at the event, and of the conservative activists who view it as their thing. But the only candidates who really ought to fear the reaper at Boone are those who don’t have a whole lot of business running for president to begin with.

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.