Iowa’s Straw Poll Madness

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Item updated below with Pawlenty campaign response

GOP primary reporters and junkies should read Walter Shapiro’s latest New Republic story (subscription required) on the absurd overhyping of Iowa’s quadrennial Republican primary straw poll, whose 2012 edition will be held in Ames on August 13. In Shapiro’s persuasive telling, the straw poll has become little more than a hustle, a “fund-raising vehicle” in which the state GOP milks tens of thousands of dollars from candidates desperate to make a splash–or at least not to look like complete failures–in a contest determined by a tiny and unrepresentative subset of the most fanatical Republican voters. For reasons aptly explained here, there’s something ridiculous and even against the national interest about Iowa and New Hampshire’s insistence on holding the very first votes of primary season (a role those states are fighting to maintain). But as Shapiro notes, Iowa doesn’t just get the first vote in its caucuses. It gets a pre-vote through the straw poll, which has knocked out some otherwise quite plausible candidates (remember Elizabeth Dole’s White House bid? It died in the Iowa straw in the summer of ’99).

Of course, it’s not all Iowa’s fault. The political media could be more responsible about the way it covers this contest–which would mean being a lot clearer about how few Iowans participate and how determinative raw dollars spent often seems to be. Hence the $1.75 million Tim Pawlenty has reportedly budgeted for next month’s contest. If Pawlenty fares well, he’ll enjoy headlines about his candidacy’s fresh momentum–never mind whether that momentum was largely bought and paid for. (Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are wisely skipping the thing. Rick Perry and Sarah Palin won’t be on the ballot, either. So it’s more or less Pawlenty versus Bachmann, with Ron Paul causing the usual white noise.)

So, here’s hoping for the responsible coverage that this glorified fund-raiser deserves. (Politico, restrain thyself!) But as Shapiro notes, reporters “are desperate for any tangible numbers to enliven the long wait until convention delegates are actually selected.” And desperate journalists make for bad headlines, so caveat emptor.

On the other hand, if Pawlenty manages to finish third, but a close third behind Ron Paul, who you can argue doesn’t really count, and Bachmann under-performs expectations based on the last Register poll, especially if Herman Cain under performs…. Oh, never mind. I’ll be on vacation anyway.

Update, 11:50am: Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant emails to call the claim that Pawlenty will drop $1.75 million on the straw poll “laughable.” Though Conant wouldn’t cite a specific number, other estimates suggest Pawlenty will have spent about $1 million campaigning in Iowa, including his TV buys there, by August 13.

(PHOTOS:  Michele Bachmann’s Life On and Off the Campaign Trail)