The Overhyped, Underwhelming Iowa GOP Straw Poll

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Picnic-goers listen to Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann after setting down their plates during a rally August 9, 2011 in Humboldt, Iowa.

When Iowa Republicans hold their presidential straw poll in Ames, Iowa, on Saturday, a couple of things will happen. One is that the state party will make a lot of money, including from corporate sources. The other is… well, not much. Yes, several thousand of Iowa’s most hardcore Republican Party activists will cast votes for a 2012 presidential candidate. But what will this tell us?

The Iowa straw poll only dates back to 1979, and in its five prior installments it hasn’t been very predictive of the ultimate GOP nominee. George H.W. Bush won it the first time, but Ronald Reagan went on to win the party’s nomination. Pat Robertson dazzled everyone with a straw poll victory in 1987, but Bush was the eventual nominee. Bob Dole in 1995 and George W. Bush in 2000 both finished first (Dole tied with Phil Gramm, to be exact) and went on to be nominees. But Mitt Romney’s 2007 straw poll did him little good; Romney didn’t even go on to win Iowa. And the man who did, Mike Huckabee, never became a very credible contender for the nomination.

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So it’s not clear why the straw poll should be very interesting in the first place. Maybe it’s just fun to have some empirically-measured competition between the candidates. Except that two of the most important candidates aren’t even competing. The GOP’s consensus front-runner, Mitt Romney, has wisely reckoned that he has little to gain by participating (what good did it do him last time?) and won’t even be on the ballot. Neither will Texas Governor Rick Perry, who will announce his candidacy in another state on Saturday, mischievously siphoning away media attention from other candidates and reinforcing the idea that the straw poll is more sideshow than main event. Ditto Sarah Palin, who skillfully exploited the congregation of national political reporters at the Iowa state fair on Friday, but who left her intentions as unclear as ever.

So what does that leave us? Mostly a story about poor Tim Pawlenty. Within the closed system of political media, the main question that the straw poll will answer is whether Pawlenty is deserving of continued treatment as a credible candidate. Pawlenty himself has conceded that a poor showing will merit a reassessment of his campaign, though he stopped short of saying he’d quit the race as have other candidates, like Lamar Alexander and Dan Quayle, who fizzled in Ames. A corollary to this question is whether  Michele Bachmann can demonstrate organizational power on the ground to match her star power. Should Bachmann win the straw poll resoundingly, that would indicate she’s more than a “bobblehead” media sensation, and can command the ground troops required to win the Iowa caucuses. And the harder it looks for Pawlenty to win the caucuses, the harder it is to see how he can be the GOP nominee.

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It’s also entirely possible that Ron Paul, with his fanatical following, will embarrass the party by beating everyone and winning the straw poll. If that happens, you could see it as a sign that Paul is being wildly underestimated and is en route to becoming the next Republican nominee. Or you could see it as evidence that the Iowa straw poll is a silly exercise, not worth the attention it commands, and that candidates and reporters alike would be better off enjoying a summer Saturday before the campaign finally gets serious this fall.