Saturday, August 13, 2011

Much Ado About Nothing

"I've had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn't it."

Groucho Marx

Peter Hamby of CNN reports that today's straw poll in Ames, Iowa, could make or break Republican presidential candidacies.

Well, perhaps. Frankly, though, I think it's a non–event. No delegates are assigned. Very few people participate in it (there are roughly 3 million people in Iowa, and fewer than 15,000 took part in the 2007 straw poll — the high water mark for the poll was in 1999, when just under 24,000 participated).

Over the years, I've heard a lot of people complain about the inordinate influence that New Hampshire has on the races for the nominations by holding the first presidential primary every four years — and at least the New Hampshire primary has the redeeming quality of allocating actual delegates, few though they may be.

Iowa's straw poll doesn't even do that. In fact, it doesn't have much of a record.

Hamby points out that, since the straw poll (which is conducted whenever the Republican nomination seems to be up for grabs) began in 1979, the winner has gone on to win the general election only once.

The poll's record in forecasting the eventual Republican nominee is only slightly better. Two of the winners of the previous five polls went on to be nominated the next year.

Most of the time, the winner of the poll means nothing. Mitt Romney won it last time; John McCain, the eventual nominee, was last among the active candidates.

In 1987, Pat Robertson won the straw poll. Vice President George H.W. Bush was nominated the next year; he finished third in the poll.

Bush was the winner of the first straw poll in 1979, but Ronald Reagan won the nomination and picked Bush to be his running mate.

The Iowa caucus is only marginally better. It does mean something in the pursuit of delegates to the national convention, but the winner of the straw poll and the winner of the caucus are not always the same candidate.

(Actually, Iowa had little, if any, role in choosing presidential nominees before 1976. Jimmy Carter finished first among the candidates — "uncommitted" received the most support — in Iowa's Democratic caucus, which received little attention prior to that year, and that gave him the momentum that helped him win early primaries and, ultimately, the nomination.)

George H.W. Bush did win the caucus in 1980, but Bob Dole won it in 1988. Dole was a particular favorite in Iowa, most likely because of his Midwestern roots; he won the caucus again in 1996 en route to the nomination after sharing the victory in the straw poll with Phil Gramm.

George W. Bush won both the straw poll (outright) and the caucus in 1999, the first to do so since his father 20 years earlier.

Four years ago, after Romney won the straw poll, Mike Huckabee won the caucus.

Romney is skipping the straw poll this year. Been there, done that, he says. He says he's focusing on winning the nomination this time.

So, too, apparently is Rick Perry, governor of my state, who will be in South Carolina this weekend, presumably to make his candidacy official. Jon Huntsman won't be participating in the straw poll, either. I'm not sure what he's doing this weekend.

For that matter, I don't know what noted political observer Stuart Rothenberg is doing this weekend, but he won't be in Iowa. He writes in Roll Call that it is "little more than an opportunity to consume large amounts of beef, gossip and alcohol with my fellow journalists."

He has no objection to that, Rothenberg writes, but it "wasn't enough of an incentive to schlep halfway across the country to cover something that is close to being irrelevant."

Rothenberg acknowledges that a poor showing in the poll could prompt a candidate to drop out — months before any delegates have actually been committed to any candidates. It has happened before.

"But, really now," he writes, "would a candidate who does so poorly in Ames that he drops out have had much of a chance anyway?"

Probably not. And my guess is that, at best, the Iowa straw poll might produce the dark horse that lasts into a few of the early primaries. But current surveys suggest that the top two candidates are Romney and Perry — and the only way they will get any votes in this grassroots organization–driven poll is if people write in their names.

Thus, that dark horse could make it a three–candidate race for awhile.

It's even possible that someone could emerge as a serious candidate — but we won't really know that until voters start going to the polls early next year.

Until then — and even, probably, thereafter — what happens in Iowa is, as Rothenberg writes, irrelevant.

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