Looks like the Ames Straw Poll has one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.
Obits for the Republican Party of Iowa’s big-top presidential circus, barbecue and fake vote fest are coming fast and furious. Gov. Terry Branstad led the funeral procession, arguing that the August shindig months ahead of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses has outlived its usefulness. He’d rather have regional fundraising forums, featuring candidates sans straw.
Others are piling on as Republicans search for ways to make their nominee-picking process into more of a president-picking process. It’s time for the party to get serious, they insist, and the straw poll has become a red clown nose on the body politic.
RPI Chairman A.J. Spiker is defending the event. But with all the eager plug-pulling, saving it will be tough. There are now more reasons for candidates to skip the straw poll than there are to throw down big bucks to buy the thousands of votes needed to win it. Top Iowa Republicans such as Branstad no longer support the event. Victory is expensive and fleeting. And the straw poll carnival invites more shots at the embattled caucuses themselves.
So calls for altering and retooling the event seem pretty wise. Still, a part of me will miss the circus.
The straw poll was a great chance to witness, in person, the absurdity of American politics. It had, over time, become a huge shoe box diorama of dubious democracy. With inflatables. And Randy Travis.
A legion of media types, myself included, four times, simultaneously spun the event’s political weight and lampooned its garish irrelevance. Overblown importance met ironic detachment in a haze of grill smoke. Of course, I’m over-generalizing. Wow. We just hit the journalistic trifecta.
Straw polling candidates fought in August’s heat to win over a tiny, activist sliver of the Iowa GOP by serving up the sort of red meat, hard-edged message that would, eventually, hurt their chances with much larger and important slices of the national electorate. On the bright side, Herman Cain did give out free slices of Godfather’s pizza.
And with today’s shadowy, complex campaign finance system, the brash, open vote buying of the straw poll actually seems refreshing. Campaigns bought $30 vote tickets and gave them directly to Iowans, no winks or nudges necessary. What could be simpler? Many wore T-shirts and stickers indicating who paid their way. If only candidates would do the same, sort of like NASCAR.
It was curiously instructive, but also vastly over-inflated. And now it just looks over.