Today in Politico, Jeff Kauffman, chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa, made a valiant effort to save the Iowa Straw Poll. He wrote:
Simply put, it is time to relegate the pay-to-play nature of the Iowa Straw Poll to the dustbin of history. (We'll leave the “pay to play” politics to the Clintons.) Here in Iowa, so long as a Republican candidate can afford the plane ticket to Iowa, they are welcome in Boone on August 8.
For those of you who have no idea what he's talking about: It has long been an accepted tradition at the Straw Poll, a quadrennial test of early organizational strength in Iowa that is staged in August of the year before a presidential election, for the plots of land at the voting venue to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. In 2011, then-Rep. Ron Paul paid $31,000 for a plot considered prime real estate — large and closest to the entrance to the convention center where the actual vote took place.
That, plus the fact that candidates could not only pay for their supporters' tickets but also for the transportation to get people to the event, made the straw poll little more than a trumped-up fundraiser for the Republican Party of Iowa. Between 1979 and 2011, that inconvenient fact was largely ignored as the straw poll was touted by everyone in politics as a critically important proving ground for anyone who wanted to have a chance in the Iowa caucuses five months later.
That all changed in the wake of the 2011 straw poll, which Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann won going away. As I wrote in the the "Gospel According to The Fix" (which I assume you have committed to memory):
By the time Iowans voted — a whole three days into 2012! — Bachmann’s political obituary and that of the Ames straw poll had already been written. Bachmann won 4,823 votes in the Ames straw poll. One hundred forty-four days later, she got just 6,046 votes in the actual Iowa caucuses — good (that may not be the right word) for sixth place. It’s actually even worse than it sounds. Only six candidates were actively competing in Iowa; former Utah governor Jon Huntsman skipped the state entirely but managed 739 votes. (Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who won the Iowa caucuses, finished fourth at the straw poll with 9 percent.)
Bachmann’s first-to-worst performance ends the Ames straw poll as a barometer of much of anything in Iowa Republican politics. Yes, it will continue. And, yes, defenders of the straw poll will insist the Bachmann victory/collapse was the exception, not the rule. And, triple yes, the media will almost certainly continue to cover it as though it means something.
But smart politicos — and I am nominating myself for this category — now should know better.
Does getting rid of the land auction change my mind on the irrelevance of the straw poll?
Not really, for a few reasons.
First, the key component of the pay-to-play label — the ability of a candidate to buy tickets for his or her supporters — remains intact. The tickets are $30 each. To put that potential cost in context, Bachmann would have spent just south of $145,000 if she had paid for the tickets of each of the 4,823 people who voted for her in 2011. Any event in which you are able to, literally, pay for votes still seems to me to be something short of an exercise in pure democracy.
Second, Bachmann's victory in 2011 shattered the idea peddled by Iowa Republicans for decades that winning the straw poll gave you a major leg up in winning the caucuses. What Bachmann's straw poll win proved was the exact opposite — that the votes of 4,800 Iowa Republicans, many of whom had their entire trip to and from the straw poll paid for, meant almost nothing about how Iowa would vote. Why waste time and money for an event that, if you are anything but a third-tier candidate, has only the potential to be a negative for you? (Sample news story: "_________" underperformed expectation in a key Iowa vote ...)
Third, as I argued this week in a piece proposing the idea of Jeb Bush skipping Iowa altogether, the 2016 nomination fight is likely to be a different sort of animal from those that have come before it. Rather than a momentum-driven contest, it will be a series of state skirmishes with little carry-over effect, as the massive field of candidates (and their aligned super PACs) try to cherry-pick places where they can run best.
All of that doesn't mean that the straw poll won't happen or won't have some relevance to a certain type of candidate in the race. If you are, say, Ben Carson, then you absolutely will (and should) compete in the straw poll and try to make it as relevant as possible. I can even imagine a scenario where a win in the straw poll could be part of a springboard effect for a candidate to hop from the third tier to the second.
But it seems clear to me that the straw poll, no matter what structural changes are made, will never again be the "must-do" event that it long was.