The National Review wants to kill the Iowa Straw Poll, the summer tradition in which Republican presidential candidates spend tons of money and eat unexpected foods on sticks in order to get a little press and raise a little money before the primary season gets going. With a bit of dubious reasoning, the conservative magazine follows Iowa's own governor, Terry Branstad, who said last week the straw poll had "outlived its usefulness." One way Republicans have explained their loss of a winnable election in 2012 is that their voters keep picking bad candidates. Michele Bachmann won the straw poll in August 2011 and was never exactly seen again as having developed into a strong national candidate.
"Consider that in the poll’s 30-year-plus history it has correctly prefigured the eventual nominee just twice, in the persons of Senator Bob Dole and Governor George W. Bush, in 1995 and 1999, respectively, and only the latter went on — narrowly — to the White House," National Review writes. That's true, but misleading. Being right only twice since 1979 sounds a lot more impressive when you remember that that covers just six elections, since there was no straw polling of incumbent Republican presidents. Another two times, the straw poll was merely ahead of its time: Ames picked George H.W. Bush in 1979 ahead of his capturing the nomination in 1988, and Mitt Romney won the straw poll in 2007 before he became the nominee this year. So four out of six times, the straw poll was onto something. That's a pretty decent record. And something that should warm Michele Bachmann's heart.
The National Review argues that the straw poll is not just wrong, but a big, fat fake event. Candidates buy tickets for their supporters and then bus them in from out of town. "The media as much as anyone have imbued the story of Ames with an import that the reality of Ames has not justified — and cannot justify. And they help sell the fiction that the straw poll highlights the divergent preferences of the 'grassroots' and the 'establishment,' and not the divergent preferences of a hand-picked, bused-in sample and the Republican electorate nationwide." But that doesn't tell the whole story. The winner of the straw poll has been the candidate seen as more socially conservative in four of the six votes. (Pat Robertson and Phil Gramm both won once each!) There's only so much the candidates can do to manipulate the local electorate. Which may be why leading conservatives have a problem with it.