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Should the Iowa straw poll be put out to pasture?

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DES MOINES — Is it time to shut down the Iowa straw poll?

That question has been raised repeatedly over the years. It’s difficult to say that the straw poll has no role or meaning. As political theater, it remains a good summer show. But as a way station on the road to the Republican presidential nomination, its limitations are as obvious as its benefits.

What’s not to like about the scene that will unfold on Saturday in Ames? There will be entertainment. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) snagged Randy Travis to play for her supporters. Mike Huckabee, who was the surprise second-place finisher here four years ago, will be around with his guitar. Some of the followers of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) will, no doubt, turn out in Revolutionary garb.

There will be free food for those who come to see and hear and vote for the candidates. There will be moon bounces and other playthings for the kids. Four years ago, someone erected a climbing wall — for those not already so stuffed with barbecue that they couldn’t move.

The afternoon will be devoted to political oratory, with all the candidates and a few party officials given time to make their case. Finally, about 6 p.m. Iowa time, the results of the straw poll will be announced. The results will be analyzed and re-analyzed by an army of journalists, bloggers, party strategists and perhaps a few ordinary citizens for the meaning of it all.

Most of those in attendance will have had their transportation provided by one of the candidates. The candidates also will pick up the cost of their tickets. As a fundraiser for the Iowa Republican Party, the straw poll is one of the premier events on the calendar. But should a fundraising event have political consequences for the candidates?

Ames is billed as a test of organization in Iowa, a precursor to what might happen in the Iowa caucuses early next year. But it is an unreliable indicator of organizational strength. Four years ago, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was the runaway winner of the straw poll. By January, he was the embarrassed loser to Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, in the caucuses.

In 1987, televangelist Pat Robertson was the surprise winner of the straw poll, but Sen. Bob Dole won the caucuses the next winter. In 1995, Sen. Phil Gramm tied Dole in the straw poll but finished a distant fifth in the caucuses. So much for Ames’s reputation as a proving ground for organization.

If that’s not enough, the straw poll competition increasingly offers a distorted look at the shape of the overall nomination contest. Sen. John McCain famously skipped the straw poll — and the caucuses — in the 2000 campaign but became the most significant challenger to George W. Bush. Four years ago, McCain again skipped the straw poll (and mostly skipped the caucuses) and still won the nomination.

This year it’s Romney who has chosen to bypass Ames. He spent a couple million dollars winning the straw poll four years ago. This time he has decided, wisely, that the expenditure doesn’t match the payoff. If Ames is an important test of something, why is it that the people who end up winning the nomination fell no compulsion to participate? He will be on the ballot, but no one seems to care where he finishes — yet he is considered the front-runner.

What has drawn all the attention this year is the competition between Bachmann and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty. Both need a victory in the caucuses to make themselves genuine forces in the nomination contest.

The conventional wisdom this weekend is that one or the other will be badly hurt by the results on Saturday — perhaps mortally wounded if the performance falls far short of expectations, however they are calibrated. Even if he wins, Pawlenty will have spent a significant share of his scarce resources on the event.

Ames has a reputation for driving people out of the race. After the 1999 straw poll, both Lamar Alexander and Dan Quayle were effectively driven from the race. Not long after that, Elizabeth Dole dropped out.

Fair enough, you might say. Alexander finished sixth, Quayle eighth. Better to winnow the field early. But Dole finished third. Candidates with even less chance of becoming president than those three-Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer among them-remained in the race, and continued to take the stage in the subsequent debates.

That’s one of its problems with the straw poll as it’s now structured. Why should an event that has become an elective, not a requirement, play that kind of life-or-death role for candidates?

The press is a willing partner in all this. We have come to Iowa in huge numbers this week, both for the debate and the straw poll. Candidates say they compete because they know the media gives the outcome enormous attention. That’s a legitimate point.

This year the straw poll’s limitations are on even fuller display. Ames might look like the center of the political universe on Saturday, but as the candidates start to speak in Iowa, most of the attention of the media and many Republicans officials will be focused elsewhere: on Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who will be announcing his candidacy in South Carolina.

The late-entering Perry has chosen to step on the straw poll rather than participate in it. In his own way, he will underscore that the competition in Ames may or may not count for something by the time the cornfields here are covered with snow.

This week I asked two Iowa officials about the value of the straw poll. Sen. Charles Grassley (R) pointed to the attention given to Thursday’s debate and noted that, without the straw poll this weekend, that encounter would have been a less significant event.

“It’s serving a good purpose even though maybe its importance is overblown,” he said. But he noted that Romney learned a lesson from the last straw poll and has chosen to conserve his resources for the caucuses and primaries, not a mid-summer spectacle. “He’s competing for delegates, not for straw poll votes,” he added.

Matt Strawn, the Iowa Republican Party chairman, said the straw poll is not only a tremendous source of funds that help underwrite the cost of putting on the caucuses but also an important organizing tool for the general election.

“Iowa will be one of eight to 10 swing states that will determine the next president of the United States,” he said. “It helps us raise the resources to build the organization after the caucuses.”

For the candidates, he said, the straw poll is an important building block to identify people who will not only vote but also help to organize the roughly 1,800 precincts for next winter’s caucuses. And, he argued, the results on Saturday will provide data not from a poll of where Iowa voters stand.

“There are a lot of positive attributes,” he said.

No question that’s the case. But there is another overriding issue about the straw poll. The late David Broder once wrote that no state should get two bites of the apple. Iowa has been given a special place in the nomination process of both parties with its first-in-the-nation caucuses. That should be enough for any state, but with the straw poll, Iowa tries the patience of every other state by continuing to ask for an extra helping of attention.

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