Would eliminating the Ames straw poll, as Republican Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad is calling for, help the Republicans pick a better candidate during the 2016 cycle?
For those who (understandably) do not have the presidential nomination process on their minds right now, a quick reminder may be in order. Republicans for the last several election cycles have used the Ames event — in which campaigns bus in and purchase tickets for their supporters, who then cast straw-poll ballots for their favorite candidate — as an early indication of candidate organization and support. The straw poll takes place in August of the year before the election, some six months before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary kick off the delegate selection portion of the process. The main function of the Ames straw poll hasn’t been to crown a nominee but to help with the early winnowing process; candidates who have done poorly, such as Tim Pawlenty in 2011, have ended their candidacies.
As Josh Putnam points out, we’ve heard similar calls before but not much comes of them. The momentum from Ames is twofold: For Iowa Republicans, it’s both a good way to attract attention to their issue and a good fundraiser; for the candidates, it’s generally been seen as a good way to get attention. As long as the candidates show up, Ames will survive.
As for its alleged bad effects, I wouldn’t be so sure. Yes, Ames has knocked out some candidates. But we really don’t know why Republicans have winnowed their field so early in recent cycles; it’s very likely that if Ames didn’t exist, the same extremely early winnowing would take place anyway.
And I think that claims that Iowa in general and Ames in particular has biased Republicans toward poor general-election candidates, or good candidates saddled with unappealing issue positions, is silly. A lot of people now are talking about immigration issues and the Latino vote in particular, but to whatever extent immigration is responsible for poor Republican results with Latinos, it’s awful hard to conclude that Iowa Republicans were out of step with their national party on those issues. The same is true on Christian conservative concerns.
The truth is that the issues that seem to be hurting Republicans with swing voters are simply not very controversial in Republican primaries. Instead, the way that every Republican nomination battle has been recently, wherever it takes place, is that candidates must jump over never-ending hurdles to prove they aren’t “RINOs,” and there’s simply no counterweight on the other side. Therefore, any process change short of eliminating the public portion of the process entirely isn’t going to matter.
If Republicans want to stop taking losing positions on issues, they need to find a way to downplay those things they believe strongly in despite their unpopularity and to give up those things they don’t really care about. As all successful political parties do. But that’s not going to happen when everyone is terrified of charges of moderation. That’s what has to change for the GOP to get healthier. Process just won’t do it.