It’s another big week in politics. Today marks the official entry of Jeb (or, as his logo says, Jeb!) — but first let us bow our heads and mock-mourn the long-deserved death of the Iowa Straw Poll.
Iowa Republicans finally killed it off in a Friday conference call because virtually all of the ’16 GOP hopefuls were bent on boycotting it. They didn’t want to waste their time and money — especially their money. This contest, first (ill-)conceived in 1979 as an early way to cull the Republican herd, was always fraudulent. It typically attracted two percent of all registered Iowa voters (so it was wildly unrepresentative of party’s electorate), and, more often than not, the winner was the candidate who most effectively bought the most votes.
Yes, the straw poll, which was staged whenever the Republicans had an open race for the nomination — in the summers of 1979, 1987, 1995, 1999, 2007, and 2011 — was literally about buying votes.
Any Iowan who wanted to show up and participate had to first pay a fee, typically $30, to the Iowa GOP. But participants rarely paid a penny, because the candidates vied to pick up the tabs. Not only that, the candidates paid for buses to ship the voters in. They also plied the voters with free food and drink and souvenirs and entertainment — skeet shooters, swing dancers, singers (Orrin Hatch brought in Vic Damone), barbecuers, whatever it took — in sumptuous hospitality tents.
As I recall — because I was there in ’99 — self-funding economic conservative Steve Forbes finished second in that summer’s straw poll in part because he was the only candidate whose hospitality tent had air conditioning. The faux French doors were a nice touch, too. (As I also recall, Forbes’ second-place finish didn’t mean squat in the long run. As the main alternative to George W. Bush, Forbes was eclipsed by John McCain — who didn’t even compete in the straw poll.)
And the straw poll electorate was always out of the mainstream — even the Republican mainstream. The kind of voter who was most motivated to trek to the town of Ames for an all-day event in the heat of August tended to be ideologically fervent. Which is to say, he or she skewed far to the right. Which explains why the winner of the 1987 straw poll was … Christian conservative leader Pat Robertson. And why the winner of the 2011 straw poll was … Michele Bachmann.
Within months, both of those candidates were politically dead. Robertson had no clout with God by the time real voting began in the winter of ’88, and Bachmann was so inept after her straw poll victory that she lost her nutcase niche to Herman Cain.
And, overall, would you care to guess how many times the straw poll winner went on to win the GOP nomination? Only once – when George W. Bush finished on top in the summer of ’99. That was particularly impressive given the fact that W. didn’t have an air-conditioned tent. (But he outfought Forbes in the celebrity competition, bringing in Roger Staubach. Way better than Forbes’ Debby Boone.)
The term straw poll was purportedly coined by a 17th-century thinker named John Seldon, who wrote, “Take a straw and throw it up into the Air – you may see by that which way the Wind is.” But, as the Iowa event usually demonstrated, that wind seemed to blow every which way but true.
And with August ’15 looming ever closer, hardly anyone in the ’16 field wanted to play. Lindsey Graham demurred – and he even boasted about it: “I was the first person to say I wouldn’t go.” Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, and Scott Walker either said no, or refused to commit. Instead, they will knock heads in their August debate on Fox News.
What’s significant, in other words, is that Iowa is ceding some of its herd-culling power to the GOP’s friendly cable network. This time around, instead of pressing the flesh and buying votes in Ames, the candidates will fight each other in the confines of Fox, in accordance with Fox rules. They’ll do it again in September on CNN, assuming that they meet the complicated poll-driven participation criteria. All told, those impending TV shows, coupled with death of the straw poll, is proof that the nomination race will be more nationalized than ever before.
Oh well. For what it was worth, the Iowa ritual was retail politicking at its most colorful. When Pat Robertson won it in ’87, his purchased voters were easily identifiable because they wore revolving lights on their heads. And Vic Damone’s dulcet crooning (“Jesus’ love is like a lighthouse”) still rings in my ears. The straw poll was a fraud – TV debates are a more credible way to winnow the field – but there’s an old saw that politics is also meant to be fun.