Every four years, Republican presidential hopefuls descend on the Iowa college town of Ames for something that was never meant to be more than a fundraising gimmick: the Ames Straw Poll. The quadrennial event on the campus of Iowa State University is essentially a Midwest county fair flavored with politics — fried food and country bands, plus a nonbinding preference poll on candidates interested in running for the Republican presidential nomination. The straw poll is not related to the Iowa caucuses, which in any case don’t take place until the following year. Yet somehow it has come to be seen as a legitimate test of a candidate’s political strength and organizational prowess.
It isn’t. Unfortunately, what was once a quirky piece of political fun that no one took too seriously has morphed into a showdown that drives potentially good candidates away. Which is why Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, a Republican, has sensibly called for an end to the Ames straw poll.
Ames’s predictive powers are minimal. Only two straw poll winners — Bob Dole in 1995 and George W. Bush in 1999 — have gone on to win the GOP nomination, and only Bush ended up in the White House. Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who spent heavily to bus supporters in from around the state, won the most recent Ames poll in 2011. But her moment in the sun led nowhere, as Branstad pointed out in a Wall Street Journal interview: In the Iowa caucuses the following January, she came in sixth. Nevertheless, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a thoughtful and highly regarded Republican leader, quit the race — thanks in part to overheated media coverage that painted the straw poll as a make-or-break moment for him.
The Ames event was best when it was a lighthearted jamboree. Now, Branstad says, “I think its days are over.” RIP.