A day after Saturday’s Iowa Straw Poll results came in—Michele Bachmann edged out Ron Paul, with Tim Pawlenty a distant third, just ahead of Rick Santorum and Herman Cain—Pawlenty pulled the plug on his flagging presidential campaign. What does this tell us? That our system of nominating presidential candidates is badly broken, beholden to a small number of extremist party activists in a couple of arbitrarily chosen small, rural states and an unthinking media echo chamber.
The Iowa Straw Poll is not a nominating contest. No convention delegates are assigned there. It is a fundraiser for the Iowa state Republican Party. It is presumed to be significant because, according to campaign reporters like the New York Times’s Jeff Zeleny, it is “a test of organizing strength.” And organizing strength is considered an important capability in Iowa, where the anti-democratic caucus system depresses turnout relative to a normal primary. Since only hardcore activists will participate in the caucuses and they must be cajoled to the polls, the mind-numbing process of identifying and turning out every last supporter in Ottumwa County is a crucial component of campaigns to lead the free world. What this skill has to do with, say, balancing the federal budget is unclear. The mainstream media, meanwhile, report on this ludicrous state of affairs as if it were an objective fact rather than a product of their own unhealthy obsession with Iowa. (After all, Iowa still assigns only a small number of delegates. If the media treated it like comparably sized Mississippi, the importance of who wins there would vanish.)
The straw poll, since it does not even count and it costs money to participate, has even lower turnout than the caucuses. So only the most partisan, ideological Republicans attend. That skews the results wildly to the far right, as demonstrated by Rev. Pat Robertson’s victory at the 1988 straw poll. The results should be taken with an enormous grain of salt.
Bachmann and Paul are members of the House of Representatives, a position from which no one has ascended directly to the presidency in well over a century. Bachmann, with her fervent religiosity, vicious homophobia and penchant for ludicrous right-wing stances such as refusing to raise the debt ceiling and abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency, is a favorite of both the economic and religious far right. Although her winning the Iowa caucuses, or even the Republican nomination, is not considered impossible, it would be nearly unprecedented. One would have to go back to Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater to find a comparably controversial candidate receiving a major party nomination. Paul, whose eccentric passions include abolishing the Federal Reserve and returning to the gold standard, has an ardent following but no appeal among mainstream Republicans. Everyone knows he is extremely unlikely to win any primaries or caucuses, and he will not win his party’s nomination.
A healthy approach for the political and media class would be to treat the straw poll as a curiosity. It’s a chance to see what the most extreme Republican base thinks, but it doesn’t tell you that Bachmann and Paul will come in first and second in Iowa, much less in the Republican primary race. Instead the media creates an elaborate expectations game. While national front-runner Mitt Romney is given an excuse for finishing seventh—behind Rick Perry, who did not even appear on the ballot—because he did not seriously contest the Iowa Straw Poll, campaign reporters repeat ad nauseam that the event constitutes, in Zeleny’s words, “an important test” for Pawlenty. And so the Washington Post dutifully told us on Sunday morning that “Pawlenty’s disappointing finish threatens to end a candidacy that once held great promise…. He will have to reevaluate in light [of] the tallies.”
And re-evaluate he did, announcing Sunday morning that he “cannot envision a path forward to victory.” Why is that the case, as opposed to Pawlenty’s initial, equally plausible, claim that he “moved from the back of the pack into a competitive position for the caucuses”? There are five months left until the caucuses, and the electorate at them will be saner than at the straw poll.
The answer is the tautology of the chattering classes. Political insiders and campaign reporters viewed the straw poll as the last chance for a campaign suffering from lackluster fundraising and polling numbers to build momentum. By setting it up as Pawlenty’s last stand, anything less than a victory would be seen as a failure to prove viability, thus making it harder to win more donations.
This is all silliness. And it’s a silliness predicated on the importance of Iowa, a state with 1 percent of the country’s population that gets to exercise outsized influence over the nominating process. The result of this exaltation of Iowa and every early clue as to its leanings is that manifestly unqualified candidates such Cain, who as of May did not know what the Palestinian “right of return” was, and theocrats such as Santorum, who lost his 2006 re-election campaign by eighteen points, are kept in the race, while a relatively sane person like Pawlenty is drummed out of it.