Tuesday, November 27, 2012

2 + 2 = -15: Double-Dipping on the Ames Straw Poll

FHQ has thrown a bit of a Twitter temper tantrum over the last few days in response to all this grossly premature talk about tearing down the Ames Straw Poll. For the record, I have no attachment to the quadrennial fundraiser Iowa Republicans hold in the year before a presidential election year. FHQ is indifferent to the exercise itself. What we are not indifferent to is the continued misperception of impact/role of the straw poll.

Sure, the National Review can cart out the tired and useless straw men like the fact that Ames is rarely predictive of the eventual nominee. Maybe some in Iowa operate under the illusion that the straw poll, or the subsequent (and consequential) caucuses for that matter, are or will be predictors of the outcome of the full nomination race. But that has never been the intent of either exercise. To the extent that either is accurate in forecasting the nominee is typically a function of an existent consensus within the party behind one candidate. The hope, then, may be to be predictive, but the reality in the case of the straw poll and the caucuses is far different. Both are winnowing contests, paring down the choice set for voters in contests in New Hampshire and Nevada and South Carolina and every other state. This is the role of any campaign event that takes place in the invisible primary.

The offshoot of this argument -- or perhaps the evolution of it -- has been to turn the tables and poke at the "harm" the straw poll does to the Republican process of nominating presidential candidates. The straw poll not only isn't good at predicting the outcome the argument goes, but it is also eroding top candidate participation in the, again, more consequential Iowa caucuses themselves. Here's the version of that argument from Governor Terry Branstad's (R-IA) spokesman, Tim Albrecht:
Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht doubled-down on the governor's sentiment last week telling CNN Branstad believes the straw poll is a "disservice to Iowa Republicans in that it discourages top-tier candidates from attending, and therein threatens their participation in the caucuses."...
"The governor instead wants to have events that strengthen the caucuses, NOT weaken them," Albrecht continued, adding "Democrats don't have a straw poll, and they have had all their candidates participate in the last two contested caucuses. Republicans can't say the same."
Look, people are entitled to their opinions. If someone wants to believe that the straw poll kept McCain and Romney away from Iowa, that's fine. It's the wrong conclusion and doesn't add up, but it is fine. [And FHQ won't delve too deeply into this idea that the Democrats in 2004 and 2008 had full candidate participation in their Hawkeye state caucuses because they didn't have a straw poll. That is an utterly ridiculous notion.]

Let's examine this in a different fashion. Scapegoating the Ames Straw Poll after 2012 is like blaming a microphone for a bad congressional town hall meeting. Ames, like open mikes at all those healthcare town hall meetings that took place during the summer 2009 congressional recess, only amplifies extant feelings/partisanship/ideology/consensus within the caucus-going electorate (or within the broader electorate in the case of the town hall meetings). The candidates don't stay away from Iowa because of Ames or the microphone. The candidates know full well that isn't the problem. The problem is one of strategy. No candidate who is viewed as more moderate compared to the full set of candidates is going to invest heavily in a contest where they are likely to lose on ideological grounds. They are outside of the "mainstream" of most (or a plurality of) caucusgoers in Iowa. Candidates in that situation -- let's call them John McCain or Mitt Romney -- make minimal investments, hope for the best and focus more heavily instead on other states. That has nothing to do with the straw poll. It has everything to do with the electorate and strategy relative to the likely outcome (in the straw poll or caucuses) given that electorate.

Those making a premature mountain out of the molehill that is Ames, need to sit back, stop misdiagnosing the problem and wait until 2015, like Republican Party of Iowa chair, AJ Spiker said, when decisions will be made concerning the straw poll.

One thing that has not been touched by the press in all of this ballyhoo over Ames is the extent to which the Republican Party of Iowa is still dominated by Ron Paul supporters after 2012. The complaints are coming from outside of the organized party infrastructure. It could be that this is not a story about Ames so much as it is a story about politics within the broader Republican Party of Iowa. Spiker and other Ron Paul supporters within the party apparatus will be up for reelection again before 2015, and it may be that those on the outside looking in on those positions would be better served organizing to defeat those folks rather than attempting to rectify the Ames non-problem. Stated differently, this Ames non-problem is a problem but not because of the injurious impact it may have in 2016. Rather, it is an issue to the governor and others in Iowa because of who would be in charge of the process. These are all really good questions that should be asked of those suddenly calling for an end to the straw poll. A better one would be whether all of the complaints are a function of or a nod to a feeling that those Ron Paul folks can't be beaten and will control any straw poll in 2015. That's the true fear.

...and yeah, that might actually keep a great many candidates not named Rand Paul away in August 2015.

But again, folks, that isn't an Ames problem. That is a political problem within the broader Republican Party of Iowa; one similar to but distinct from the discussion about the direction of the Republican Party at the national level.

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