The Iowa Straw Poll, a pricey test of organizing capacity, has a strange influence on American politics.
Thursday, August 18, 2011
A day after Saturday’s Iowa Straw Poll results came in – Michele Bachmann edged out Ron Paul, with Tim Pawlenty a distant third, just ahead of Rick Santorum and Herman Cain – Pawlenty pulled the plug on his flagging presidential campaign. What does this tell us? That our system of nominating presidential candidates is badly broken, beholden to a small number of extremist party activists in a couple of arbitrarily chosen small, rural states and an unthinking media echo chamber.
The Iowa Straw Poll is not a nominating contest. No convention delegates are assigned there. It is a fundraiser for the Iowa state Republican Party. It is presumed to be significant because, according to campaign reporters like the New York Times’ Jeff Zeleny, it is “a test of organizing strength.” And organizing strength is considered an important capability in Iowa, where the anti-democratic caucus system depresses turnout relative to a normal primary. Since only hardcore activists will participate in the caucuses and they must be cajoled to the polls, the mind-numbing process of identifying and turning out every last supporter in Ottumwa County is a crucial component of campaigns to lead the free world. What this skill has to do with, say, balancing the federal budget is unclear. The mainstream media report on this ludicrous event as if it were an objective fact rather than their own unhealthy obsession with Iowa.
The straw poll, since it costs money and does not even count, has even lower turnout than the caucuses. Only the most partisan, ideological Republicans attend, skewing the results wildly to the far right, as demonstrated by Rev. Pat Robertson’s victory at the 1988 straw poll.
Bachmann and Paul are members of the House of Representatives, a position from which no one has ascended directly to the presidency in well over a century. Bachmann, with her fervent religiosity, vicious homophobia and penchant for ludicrous right-wing stances such as refusing to raise the debt ceiling and abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency, is a favorite of both the economic and religious far right. Although her winning the Iowa caucuses, or even the Republican nomination, is not considered impossible, it would be nearly unprecedented. Paul, whose eccentric passions include abolishing the Federal Reserve and returning to the gold standard, has an ardent following but no appeal among mainstream Republicans. A healthy approach for the political and media class would be to treat the straw poll as a curiosity. It’s a chance to see what the most extreme Republican base thinks, but it doesn’t tell you that Bachmann and Paul will come in first and second in Iowa, much less in the Republican primary. Instead the media creates an elaborate expectations game. While national front-runner Mitt Romney is given an excuse for finishing seventh (because he did not seriously contest the Iowa Straw Poll), campaign reporters repeat ad nauseam that the event constitutes an important test for Pawlenty.
Pawlenty announced Sunday morning he “cannot envision a path forward to victory.” Why, as opposed to Pawlenty’s initial, equally plausible, claim that he “moved from the back of the pack into a competitive position for the caucuses”? There are five months left until the caucuses, and the electorate will be saner than at the straw poll.
The result of this exaltation of Iowa is that manifestly unqualified candidates such as Cain, who did not know what the Palestinian “right of return” was, and theocrats such as Santorum, who lost his 2006 re-election campaign by 18 points, are kept in the race, while a relatively sane person like Pawlenty is drummed out of it.
Ben Adler reports on Republican and conservative politics and media for The Nation.