On August 13, the Iowa State campus in Ames will become the center of the political universe, as thousands of Republicans participate in what is frequently ballyhooed as the season’s most important campaign event. The GOP activists will wolf down free barbecue, enjoy musical acts, watch their children be diverted by clowns, cheer political speeches, and cast ballots in a mock election designed to preview next February’s Iowa caucuses.
We are, of course, talking about the Iowa Straw Poll. I will never forget watching in 1999, as the self-funded Steve Forbes squandered nearly $2 million in a failed effort to buy his way to victory at the event, and the other GOP contenders, from George W. Bush on down, vied to match him. Even now, I marvel at the memory of the air-conditioned, 166-foot-long mega-tent, with five French doors, that Forbes erected to house his supporters. “You know what this event is? It’s something that Iowa has a lot of—it’s a good-natured fraud,” said Iowa-born Michael Gartner, the former president of NBC News, as we watched Crystal Gayle perform on behalf of a doomed Lamar Alexander. “It’s a hustle, but it’s all out in the open, and it’s done with such good spirits.”
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.
THE ORIGINAL REPUBLICAN Iowa Straw Poll—won by the elder George Bush—was held in 1979, and it resembled an event The Des Moines Register had organized for the Democratic candidates four years earlier. But, after the 1984 campaign, the national Democratic Party strongly discouraged straw polls, and today there is no equivalent to the Ames event on the Democratic side. “Everyone decided that straw polls were a great waste of time and a great waste of money,” explains Elaine Kamarck, author of Primary Politics: How Presidential Candidates Have Shaped the Modern Nominating System and a longtime member of the Democratic Party’s rules committee. “And they actually hurt the candidates for the main event of the primaries and caucuses.”
The straw poll is, at its core, a fundraising vehicle for the state party, which has to pay for holding next year’s caucuses. The bulk of the revenue comes from a poll tax; voting in Ames requires a $30 ticket. Iowa Republican Chairman Matt Strawn told me that this year’s straw poll “will net upward of six figures” (though he also stressed that “it is extremely expensive to host the straw poll in Ames”). The tickets are often distributed to attendees by the campaigns themselves. This creates the ethical dilemma of whether you are obligated to support the candidate who paid for your ticket and sometimes even bused you to the site.
Moreover, the Republicans who will attend the event on August 13 are not exactly a cross-section of next year’s Iowa caucus-goers. In truth, the straw poll is akin to the smallest of Russian nesting dolls. Think about it this way: In November 2008, 682,000 Iowa voters cast their ballots for McCain. The 119,000 Republicans who participated in the 2008 caucuses were the party stalwarts. But the 14,000 Republicans who voted in the 2007 straw poll were a microcosm of that microcosm—just 12 percent of the caucus attendees and a microscopic 2 percent of McCain voters. Not surprisingly, this tiny segment of the GOP electorate is often the most fervent. Imagine how committed you have to be to travel for, say, six hours round-trip to Ames to sit in an un-air-conditioned tent in August in the hope that your favored candidate will win a fake election. This explains what happened in 1987, when Pat Robertson won the straw poll. Yes, the Republican Party actually set up a mechanism whereby a nut-case televangelist could embarrass the sitting vice president (George Bush) and the minority leader of the Senate (Bob Dole).
Given the skewed nature of the event, you might think journalists would ignore the results. But, on the contrary, too many of my colleagues in the press inflate the straw poll’s significance, because they are desperate for any tangible numbers to enliven the long wait until convention delegates are actually selected. And so the consequences of failure at the straw poll can be dramatic. In 1999, a disappointing sixth-place finish at Ames forced Lamar Alexander out of the race immediately after the results were in. The poll also fatally damaged the campaign of Elizabeth Dole, who dropped out two months later. Iowa Republicans, in other words, end up having a power that no other state, not even New Hampshire, is granted: two separate opportunities to cull the GOP presidential field. Indeed, we are getting close to the point where no candidate can survive a disappointing showing in Ames, because the media horde will suddenly have only one question: “Are you dropping out?”
The smart move, then, might be to skip the event. That is what Romney, who outspent his rivals to win the 2007 straw poll, is doing this year. But most candidates cannot resist the lure of a media and fund-raising boost from victory in Ames. Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann are camping out in Iowa for the duration and bombarding the Des Moines–Ames media market with 30-second spots. You can detect a whiff of desperation in a Pawlenty commercial that contains the tagline, “Join me—and prove the experts wrong.” Ron Paul, who retains the capacity to embarrass everyone in Ames, spent the most money ($31,000) in a party-run auction of straw poll tent sites. And Rick Perry may declare his candidacy on the eve of the straw poll in hopes of gaining instant credibility from a surprisingly strong showing as a write-in candidate.
It is, of course, wishful thinking to expect the journalists descending on Ames to suddenly break with years of tradition by practicing some restraint and reporting the results in a tempered way. But, depending on who emerges triumphant, and who gets eliminated, maybe this will be the year that the GOP finally learns the hard way the folly of straw polls. I know I did. Back in 1983, my first article as a political writer for Newsweek anointed Alan Cranston, a cadaverous antiwar California senator, as one of the Democratic front-runners—because he had triumphed in the ever-so-important Wisconsin Straw Poll.
Walter Shapiro is a special correspondent for The New Republic.This article originally ran in the August 18, 2011, issue of the magazine.