Early summer, or even late spring, the political press begins to buzz about the straw poll. Generally, it hedges its bets, by disparaging the contest, but reporting on it all the same (it is after all, the closest thing to something that matters). Anticipatory reports are laced with a rightful degree of cynicism and disdain and typically frame the contest as anything from silly (“an overblown country fair,” writes Malcolm Andrew in the Los Angeles Times; “cunning weirdness” to George Will) to reliably unreliable to “organized bribery on a grand scale.”
And then, when the August event is even closer at hand—a mere weeks away—there will be the long-form story, the straw poll takedown piece, in which a seasoned commentator takes up the baton and tries to write the article that will undress the emperor, shake the political media out from under the straw poll spell, and render the Iowa contest as unimportant as it should be.
Walter Shapiro did it this year, pleading the case in the “The Corn Ultimatum: Put an end to the Iowa Straw Poll—please,” an article published July 28 in The New Republic. The story is also available on the magazine’s website with the teaser, “The Iowa Straw Poll is the Worst event in America.”
Over the years, I have reached a different conclusion: The Iowa Straw Poll is one of the most insidious events in politics. Even though the straw poll is about as scientific as sorcery, political reporters over-hype the results and pretend that they mean something. The upshot is that fringe candidates can get an unwarranted boost and serious candidates can be prematurely eliminated before most Iowa caucus-goers, let alone most Republicans elsewhere, have a chance to decide on their preferences. Yet, despite all of the straw poll’s obvious flaws, and even as some candidates boycott it—John McCain in 2007; Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman this year—nothing, it seems, can dim the prominence of this ersatz election.
He makes a compelling case, but not one that hasn’t been made before.
Joe Klein, writing for The New Yorker, did this in August 1999, in “Spend, Spend, Spend: How Iowans are taking Republican Presidential Wanna-bes to the Cleaners.”
Klein’s whole piece is worth reading, but several presidential cycles later, this passage is still right on the money:
The event will come and go—leaving wrecked and wounded candidacies in its wake—before most people, even most Iowans, notice that a campaign has begun. But the truly remarkable thing about the Iowa straw poll is that it has achieved its prominence despite an unblemished record of failure over twenty years: it has never successfully predicted a Republican nominee, much less a President.
And yet the phenomenon grows—nearly tripling in size from election to election, always compelling and always futile. It is an eternal lure for candidates with more ambition that good sense, a political money pit. Each time around, the local Republicans develop more elaborate and perverse ways to fleece the suckers. “In 1995, when we gave away the plots a first-come, first serve basis, we learned there was some value to having a good space, near the entrance of the arena,” Dee Stewart the Republican Party of Iowa’s executive director, said. “Of course, I was as surprised as anyone by just how valuable some of those spaces turned out to be.”
Klein goes on to describe the circumstances that led future President George W. Bush (who, Klein couldn’t know when writing, would be the only presidential nominee the straw poll has so far successfully predicted) to bid $43,500 for the most coveted of plots, a grassy patch near the entrance of the arena, to pitch his tent.
Ron Paul will occupy the space this year for $31,000. Despite the price decline (it is the only plot to go for less than it did in 1999), it’s hard to say the straw poll’s profile—or the profitability of the event—has diminished since then. According to Hugh Winebrenner and Dennis Goldford, authors of The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event, in 2007, the Iowa GOP thought of another thing to monetize, selling a list of about 125,000 names of previous caucus goers to candidates for 25 cents per name—all but one plunked down $32,000 for the whole list.