Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The Iowa Straw Poll and the Regular Rhythms of the Presidential Nomination Process

FHQ got a sneak peek of Jonathan Bernstein's Friday column on Thursday when we had a chance to chat after my APSA roundtable on the 2020 presidential nomination process. At the time, I agreed with him. Honestly, thoughts of the straw poll that wasn't in Iowa in 2016 had long ago been washed over and displaced with the logjam of events that happened during and since the 2016 cycle. So, sure, perhaps no straw poll meant one fewer winnowing opportunity; one coordination event lost.

But the more I thought about it -- and I had time when I was stuck on the T during an outage on the way home that evening -- the more I thought, well, surely there was some event that filled the void that the Ames Straw Poll absence had left behind. Although they were down in number in 2016 -- just like primary debates -- from the 2012 cycle, there were other straw polls that were conducted during the year leading up the first votes being cast in the caucuses in Iowa.

Initially, FHQ thought of the fall straw poll annually conducted at the Value Voters Summit. That is an event and a straw poll that receives some attention, falls in roughly the same window of time in which the Iowa straw poll occurs, and even could be said to deal with a similar socially conservative constituency.

However, through the lens of Google Trends, there is not much evidence to suggest that the VVS straw poll filled the void left by the Ames straw poll in any meaningful way.1

The same general trend holds for the other events that peppered the calendar throughout 2015, whether it was the straw poll earlier in the year at CPAC or the one at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference. Those events could have been stand-ins for the straw poll, but were not. In fact, in the cases of CPAC and the SRLC, those events preceded the mid-June cancelation of the Iowa straw poll in 2015.

And this speaks to something Bernstein raised in his post; what he called the stab(ility) of the rules. FHQ has often evoked the same concept but under a different banner: the regular rhythms of the presidential nomination process. I agree with Bernstein that the silliness factor involved in the Iowa straw poll was quite high. And while that is true, it also served valuable functions in both coordination and winnowing.

Yes, Iowa Republicans ended the practice for the 2016 cycle and that was as much a function of pressure from the national party (because of the Hawkeye state's perceived two bites at the apple), but also because a number of the potential candidates signaled they were not going to participate.

While that is noteworthy, the why the straw poll ended is less important than why there was nothing waiting in the wings to fill the void. After all the RNC did sanction a primary debate -- the first of the cycle -- in the same August time span in which debates had been held in Iowa roughly in conjunction with the straw poll. But that Cleveland debate was a solo event with no attendant straw poll. Count that as a missed opportunity perhaps.

Another miss could be found in the collective wisdom of the aggregated straw poll results for the 2016 cycle. Most pointed in the same directions, often elevating either Ted Cruz or Ben Carson. And just as often Scott Walker finished third.

There were, perhaps, opportunities for coordination and to force some winnowing there, but there was no effort to emphasize those events or the candidates who did well (either positively or negatively). And that was consistent with a cycle that saw some active maneuvering from the national party in the area of the nomination rules (2013-14), but was hands off other than sanctioning debates when 2015 rolled around. That is not to suggest the party and the variety of actors within the broader party coalition were silent when it came to Trump specifically. Rather, it demonstrates a break in the regular rhythms of the process and that there was no active counter to those breaks from a coordination standpoint.

One could say that there were few profiles in courage among Republicans during the 2016 cycle. But just as easily, and likely more accurately, one could also say Republican party actors were trying to maintain a delicate balance between what elites wanted out of the process (winning the White House) and what was valued by a vocal faction of the base of primary voters (ABE -- anything but the establishment). Coordinating in the face of those tensions is difficult at best, and that difficulty can give rise to unexpected results; unintended consequences even.

1 The picture looks a bit better when one changes the search terms from "Value Voters Summit straw poll" to simply "Value Voters Summit", but the spikes pale in comparison to the sharp upticks around the Ames straw polls in both 2007 and 2011. The jump was actually smaller in 2015 when there was no straw poll in Iowa than it was in either 2007 or 2011 when there was.