Why doesn’t the national Republican Party discourage the presidential hopefuls from participating in the Ames Straw Poll? While the benefits of this event to the Iowa GOP are perfectly clear, I don’t see any benefits to the party as a whole, and there may even be some harm.
The straw poll has no predictive (or even descriptive!) value. In 2007 Rudy Giuliani and John McCain together received a grand total of less than 2% of the vote. A visitor from Mars would have never guessed that one of these gentlemen was the indisputable front-runner at the time, topping 40% in nationwide polls of Republicans, and the other would eventually go on to win the nomination. Sam Brownback, Tom Tancredo and Tommy Thompson each got a four digit number of votes – not bad in a poll with a total of just 14 thousand participants (especially compared to McCain’s 101 votes). Between the three of them they got over 36% of the vote. Each and every one of the three then dropped out before Christmas. In other words, over a third of the vote went to candidates who were not even candidates when the election year actually started. Furthermore, the poll also failed to predict the winner of the Iowa caucus four months later.
This year the straw poll is an outright disaster which may well hurt the party in the eyes of the voters (fortunately, the disaster was mitigated by Governor Perry’s presidential candidacy announcement drawing away a lot of media attention). Both the winner and the close runner-up are extremists, and nobody else won even half as many votes as either of them. Not only do the two top vote getters profess crazy views, but neither of them has any chance of winning the nomination. If nominated, neither of them has any chance of winning the election (even if the Democrats reciprocated by nominating Dennis Kucinich, the election would be won by a sane independent candidate). And if elected, neither of them is capable of governing. And yet they won a combined total of over 56% of the vote. What does this say about the party to a casual observer (e.g. an independent voter in a swing state)?!
If we define a “serious candidate” as someone who 1) is capable of governing and 2) has a realistic chance of winning either the nomination (Romney and Perry) or the general election (Romney and Huntsman), then all the serious candidates together received fewer votes than the joke candidacy of Herman Cain. If, to be charitable to Pawlenty, we replace the word ‘realistic’ in this definition with ‘plausible’, then all serious candidates still received well under a quarter of the total vote (this still holds true even if we implausibly expand the definition of a “serious candidate” to include Newt Gingrich). Let’s face it: the Ames Straw Poll may have been a serious political event back in the last millennium, but now it has become a freak show.