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.