Showing posts with label Ames Straw Poll. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ames Straw Poll. Show all posts

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.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

RNC memo gives Iowa Straw Poll a green light

Jennifer Jacobs at the Des Moines Register has the story.

FHQ has already commented on this on Twitter, but I'll rehash some of that and expand on it here.

First of all, this argument/concern from within and around the Republican Party of Iowa that the Ames Straw Poll would violate the Rules of the Republican Party always seemed a bit overblown. On the one hand, one could consider it a statewide vote of sorts, which would put the contest in violation of the RNC rules cited above (Rule 16.a.1).1 Again, of sorts. But while it is an event conducted by the Republican Party of Iowa -- the state party -- it is not and has never been a part of the party's delegate selection process. RNC legal counsel, John Ryder, says as much in the memo drafted as a response to RPI's query on the straw poll.2 It is an event; a fundraiser for the state party.

Now, none of this is to say that Ames does not matter. The real question is how the straw poll matters. Value is placed on the contest, unscientific though it may be, by the media and some campaigns not because it is a straw poll but because it is a straw poll in the state that holds the first delegate selection event on the primary calendar. Other state parties hold -- and will hold in 2015 -- straw polls of their own. But Ames is the one that is associated with the caucuses in the Hawkeye state. No, Ames is not decisive. No, Ames is not predictive of what will happen later in caucuses. Ames is a winnowing contest. It may not weed out a frontrunner, for instance, but it is part of the process in the lead up to primary season -- the invisible primary -- that finds an often robust field of candidates shrunk down to a decreasing number of players. Ames winnowed Lamar Alexander in 2000, Sam Brownback in 2008 and Tim Pawlenty in 2012. It claims its victims, but so do other events as well as just plain old poor campaigns/candidates.

The Republican Party of Iowa -- memo from the RNC in tow -- will make its decision on the fate of the Ames Straw Poll in a meeting on Saturday.

1 It would be a violation of the RNC rules if the the Republican Party of Iowa failed to allocate delegates based on the straw poll results. ...if the straw poll was part of the delegate selection/allocation process.

2 Below is the full memo from the RNC's Ryder (via Jacobs):

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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

As Spiker Goes, So Goes the Ames Straw Poll?

FHQ must admit, we had a different reaction to news over the weekend that Republican Party of Iowa chairman, AJ Spiker, had opted to step down from his post. Well, FHQ had a different reaction relative to the impact the change will have on the future of the Iowa caucuses or the Ames Straw Poll. On the latter, it has been reported for months that Governor Terry Branstad (R-IA) has recommended suspending the event altogether. And that forces in the state/party aligned with the governor were able to overrun precinct caucuses earlier in the year and county conventions this past weekend -- combined with Spiker's resignation -- could indicate that the end is nigh.


However, in FHQ's mind, one question emerges: Was this recommendation/proposal -- to end the straw poll -- a reaction to the perceived structural problems the event represents (see 2011) or a function of intra-party opposition to the liberty movement-aligned leadership in the state party?

Time may or may not provide us with an accurate answer to this question. Yet, I am puzzled by the notion that a mainstream/establishment faction within the Republican Party of Iowa would demonstrate in 2014 the organizational wherewithal necessary to wrest control of the state party back from the liberty movement faction -- one that out-organized them in 2012 -- only to unilaterally surrender a big, quadrennial fund-raising event in 2015. [They couldn't organize a "better" straw poll?] The argument all along has been that straw poll participants/caucusgoers in Iowa skew rightward ideologically. Furthermore, [and this is an argument, not FHQ's position] the contention has been that the Spiker chairmanship would only exacerbate that issue, making Iowa a less attractive option at the front of the 2016 presidential primary calendar.

But if the more mainstream faction within the party can flex its organizational muscle in midterm caucuses and perhaps elect one of their own as chairman, does this remain an issue? I don't know. But there is at least some reason to doubt that the Ames Straw Poll is going anywhere in 2015.

Postscript: And allow me to dismiss outright this idea that the RNC can still change its rules and that Iowa's first in the nation status is somehow at risk. Yes, the RNC can still change its rules any time before August 30. However, so long as the Democratic National Committee keeps Iowa up front -- and there is no indication that the DNC will make any changes to the carve-outs on its side -- the motivation for the RNC to make any changes is greatly diminished.

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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

I Am Not an Ames Straw Poll Apologist

...but FHQ is among the most skeptical of skeptics when the conversation turns back toward the "Is Ames Dead?" discussion.

Look, I thought Jonathan Martin's piece Sunday in the New York Times was illuminating. This -- the "Is Ames Dead?" discussion -- is absolutely an ongoing topic within and outside of the Republican Party of Iowa and it has at least some tangential bearing on the progress of any Republican presidential nomination race (Results may vary.). But when it comes to actually killing off the straw poll -- the quadrennial August Republican rite in the year before a presidential election year -- well, it is a bit more complicated than the straw poll is on its death bed.

...and there are certainly more perspectives within the state party about the event than it being like a "Civil War doctor amputating a gangrenous leg to save the life of the patient".

Let's take Mike Murphy's comment from the article first because that is a great place to start. I don't know whether Murphy was channeling Wallace Shawn in Princess Bride or not, but invoking land wars in Asia is a good analogy in the context of an establishment candidate wading into a supposedly ultraconservative affair in Ames. The line is also analogous in a great many ways to attempting to put the halt on the straw poll altogether.


This is something FHQ will revisit later this week in a slightly different scenario, but in this instance there currently is a veto point within the Republican Party of Iowa concerning the Ames Straw Poll. Yes, it is significant that Governor Terry Branstad (R-IA) has openly called for an end to the practice. Very significant. Rare are the times when states volunteer to lose attention in the presidential nomination process. But the party infrastructure itself is not -- at least on this issue -- on the same page with the governor. That makes it quite difficult to stop the practice.

Not impossible, mind you. But difficult.

An example...

Take Obamacare. Republicans on the Hill and nationwide have made no bones about wanting to repeal what is considered by some to be among the signature pieces of legislation to work its way through Congress on the president's watch. However, the law is in place, it is taking effect in the staggered way in which it was intended (and in some cases not initially intended), and there are also veto points within the process of reversing the legislation. There is a Democratic-controlled Senate and a Democratic president standing in the way.

The institution has been erected in other words and is increasingly difficult to tear down the more it becomes, well, institutionalized over time.

Back in the Iowa context, then, there are interests that want the institution that is the straw poll in Ames to continue. And those interests pull the strings within the state party now, too. That makes the interests (ending the straw poll practice) of the governor and other Republican officials and operatives in the Hawkeye state -- those somewhat echoed by the national party or vice versa -- harder to bring to fruition.

Institutionally speaking, there are roadblocks -- prohibitive ones at this point in time -- to putting an end to the straw poll.

At one point -- nine months ago when this issue was last raised so prominently nationally -- there was talk of "tweaking the event" involved in this discussion as well. That sentiment has not disappeared, FHQ would wager. And really, that is where this is likely to end if change is in the offing for the Ames Straw Poll. It is an event -- a fundraiser at its core -- for the party. It is an event that is also somewhat insulated by the fact that Iowa has and will continue to lead off the presidential nomination process in 2016. That is not going to change. In fact, Iowa and the other three carve-out states have received additional protection from the RNC since the 2012 caucuses. And the order of those states is codified in the DNC rules that are likely to carry over to 2016. Iowa's caucuses have no real threat -- not of losing delegates anyway -- on the Republican side from non-carve-outs and have rules-backing on the order of the first four contests on the Democratic side.

Now, FHQ is not saying that there is no way for the Ames Straw Poll to die. But institutionally there are obstacles within the Republican Party of Iowa to that happening. More to the point, there is division within the party about whether holding the event is good or bad for the caucuses early the following year. The space between the two camps and the balance of power there is such that change is unlikely now, and if it occurs, is likely to be somewhere between holding the straw poll as usual and killing it.

And if it isn't totally dead in 2015, that means it ended up tweaked in some way.

...a way that likely favors those holding most of the cards on the decision. The state party.

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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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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Death of the Ames Straw Poll?

Here we are a little less than three years away -- a long time in politics -- from the likely August 2015 Ames Straw Poll; an event that is often heralded as the beginning of the Republican presidential nomination process. Of course, the real beginning of the 2016 Republican presidential nomination process was sometime either late on November 6 or in the wee hours of the morning of November 7 when the 2012 election was called for Barack Obama. Never the less, many look upon the late summer event in Iowa in the year immediately prior to a presidential election year as important; a point at which people are actually casting ballots for would-be/actually-are candidates in the state that quadrennially kicks off the new primary season.

Non-binding on the actual nomination race or not, some -- Governor Terry Branstad (R-IA) -- are now calling for an end to the process.

To which FHQ responds, "Not so fast." Here's why:
  1. It is a little early to be talking about death knells for 2016 campaign events.
  2. As Republican Party of Iowa Chairman AJ Spiker rightfully pointed out, Branstad will not be the one making this decision.
  3. The 2016 Republican nomination race is wide open from our vantage point here in November 2012. It may not be in 2015 (but probably will be to some extent).
  4. Calling for or forecasting the end to events in Iowa is an age-old past time in the political sphere.
There are probably other reasons too, but let's focus on these interrelated four.

At least during the 2012 cycle folks waited until February 2011 to start questioning the utility of the Iowa caucuses. Built on the same house of cards reasoning -- that social conservative Iowa Republicans would select someone who was too conservative to do well in the remaining primaries and caucuses and by extension the general election --  some continued to question Iowa's usefulness at the beginning of the Republican nomination process after Michele Bachmann won the 2011 straw poll. That reasoning is predicated on the false notion that these events -- whether the straw poll or the first in the nation caucuses -- have to be or should be predictive of the final outcome. This is the wrong way to think about the role of either event. Both the straw poll and the caucuses due to their positioning are not predictive events. They are winnowing events. Sometimes the stars align and the straw poll and more often the caucuses crown (or as luck would have it, "pick") the nominee.1 But that is not always the case. And it doesn't have to be. Leave the picking to other states. Iowa's power has always been in winnowing the choice set.

The only real, definitive bit of information that we have to have at this point in 2012 about the future of the Ames Straw Poll is that the Republican Party of Iowa is not going to unilaterally disarm.2 That is certainly true given the discussions of who may run on the Republican side in 2016. There continue to be discussions about how deep the Republican bench is and if that comes to fruition -- if Rubio, Bush, Christie, Jindal, Ryan and Paul all run or even if half of them run -- then Iowa Republicans are not going to discontinue the straw poll.

Well, the party would not end the straw poll unless there was clear evidence that all of the candidates, especially the big name candidates, would skip the event. Even then, the party may persist with the straw poll. But that scenario isn't likely to happen because if all or half of those candidates listed above run, it will only take one opting into the straw poll process -- as is or tweaked in some way, shape or form -- to bring the others in. The Ames Straw Poll is or would be too big of a deal to miss from an organizational standpoint. 2016 is not shaping up to be a John McCain (2008) or Mitt Romney (2012) sort of cycle for the Republicans; a cycle where a seemingly more moderate candidate is the frontrunner -- nominal or otherwise.3 Unless all of the above pass on 2016 for some strange reason, then all will be motivated to participate in the straw poll. That is more true in light of the fact that there does not seem to be a true social conservative on the short list of candidates. In Ben Domenech's taxonomy, Rubio (or Bush) is the establishment candidate, Jindal is the populist, Christie is the moderate and Rand Paul is the libertarian. That leaves room for one dark horse, who could be a social conservative, but absent such a candidate, all of the others would have some selling to do to the social conservative Iowa crowd.  That portion of the caucusgoing electorate would matter, but would likely be split to varying degrees unless one of the candidates emerged or had emerged prior to the straw poll as a clear frontrunner.

The bottom line is that, yes, like Craig Robinson, I agree that the candidates will be the ones deciding the future of Ames Straw Poll. If they show up, it matters. If they don't, then it won't. But depending on how the eternity that is the next two and a half years of the invisible primary progresses, there will likely be incentives for the candidates to throw their hat in the ring. That comes with some consequences -- a poor showing could mean lights out -- but the reward of meeting or exceeding expectations could be greater than that risk of not.

It's just too early folks. Call me in late 2014 to discuss the death of Ames. November 2012 is too early.

1 Much of this has to do with the extent to which a consensus frontrunner has emerged by the time of either the straw poll or the caucuses. If that consensus exists as it did in 2000, for instance, then the majority/plurality of Iowa caucusgoers often make the pragmatic choice whether it overlaps completely with their ideological position or not.

2 Terry Branstad might want to discontinue the practice, but the RPI does not and will not.

3 Another way of thinking about this is that there was 1) no clear frontrunner and 2) the overall field was viewed as weak in both cycles. Both factors seem to have applied in 2012, but neither seems to fit the conditions of 2008.

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