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Enough Already With the Straw Poll

The straw poll is an Iowan-only event that drew just 14,000 this year. Has it run its course? (Eric Thayer/Getty Images).

As political theater, it's hard to beat the Iowa Republican straw poll. But that doesn't mean it's not time to rethink whether this event has run its course.

Even on a brutally hot day, as it was on Saturday in Ames, the atmosphere at the straw poll is infectious for anyone who revels in politics and appreciates heartland values. The Iowa Republican Party and a slew of presidential candidates staged another family-friendly day of free food, music and entertainment. As before, there were inflatable slides and moon bounces for the kids. Portable climbing walls were the new addition this year. Vendors lined one of the walkways hawking their political passions. Perennial candidate Alan Keyes--who is not running this time--even had a booth set up in his behalf. The real candidates had tents for their supporters to take refuge from the sun while wolfing down endless helpings of barbecue, chips and cookies.

Ron Paul offer a fife and drum corps, Mike Huckabee played the guitar, and Mitt Romney provided an army of cousins and nieces and nephews, along with his wife, sons, and daughters-in-law, to help keep his supporters entertained. And all the candidates offered up their stump speeches, inside the air-conditioned Hilton Coliseum, as the straw poll balloting was taking place.

So it was another Saturday of good fun and non-stop politicking. But is all this necessary--or even right?

My colleague David Broder penned a memorable column eight years ago, calling into question Iowa's privileged position in the nominating process. Noting that Iowa has both the first-in-the-nation caucuses and an earlier summer straw poll that has been influential in shaping the Republican race, he wrote, "To be blunt about it, Iowa doesn't deserve two bites at the apple, when so many states get none."

Broder's "two bites at the apple" rule is even more true after Saturday's spectacle in Ames. Beyond raising a ton of money for the Iowa Republican Party, the event lacked the drama or significance of those in years past.

For starters, turnout this year declined sharply from the 1999 straw poll. That year, more than 23,000 Iowans--only Iowans are allowed to vote, though anyone is welcome to come to Ames--cast ballots. On Saturday, only 14,302 votes were cast. Why should an event that draws only 14,000 people be given the significance the straw poll receives.

Next, this year's contest was notable as much for who didn't participate as who did. Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Fred Thompson all chose not to compete actively. Their opponents say the reason is they feared a poor finish would damage their candidacies. There's some truth in that, but it begs the question: if three of the top four candidates in national polls are not competing, how meaningful is the prize?

In some years, the straw poll has helped to winnow the field of candidates, though not necessarily the longest of long shots. After the 1999 straw poll, Lamar Alexander and Dan Quayle decided their candidacies were done. Elizabeth Dole also joined them on the sidelines a bit later. But fringe candidates like Keyes and Gary Bauer continued in the race.

This year, the first casualty is former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, who said he needed a first or second-place showing to stay in the race. He finished sixth and mercifully took only 24 hours to quit the race. But weak finishes by others--Duncan Hunter being the most obvious example--may not thin the herd of candidates who crowd the stage at Republican debates.

Two candidates came out of Ames enhanced: Romney, whose prodigious spending made him the runaway favorite going into the balloting, and Huckabee, who finished second without spending much of anything. Romney secured his top tier status in the race and Huckabee, who has performed well in the GOP debates, now will get a boost that he hopes will put him up with Romney, Giuliani, Thompson and McCain.

But it's arguable that Romney and Huckabee were already in those positions. Romney certainly had established himself as the frontrunner in Iowa--though calling anyone a frontrunner in the Republican race begs the question of shallow support and a disgruntled electorate.

Huckabee had already caught McCain in the Washington Post-ABC News poll of Iowa Republicans, albeit at just 8 percent. If Ames proved anything for Huckabee, it's that he has more support at this point among religious and social conservatives than his nemesis, Sam Brownback. But their competition will continue regardless of what happened on Saturday.

The press is part of the problem. Asked two days before the straw poll why he was competing so hard, Huckabee said, "Because all you guys are here covering it. You're going to tell everybody that if we do well we're in the game and if we don't we've got to reassess."

Fair point--and made all the more so given the absence of so many of the "leading" candidates.

Iowa plays an important role in the process of selecting presidential candidates, and its electorate has earned its reputation--along with New Hampshire's--for being studious, attentive, inquisitive and engaged. Not many states can make the same claim.

But the lavish expenditures of money combined with the declining participation at this year's contest should prompt a reassessment of this summer tradition in Iowa. What Dave Broder wrote eight years ago is even more the case today.

--Dan Balz

By Washington Post editors  |  August 13, 2007; 11:20 AM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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Dan Balz - when did you become an apologist for McCain and Giulliani? The reason they dropped out of the straw poll is that they knew they have been out- worked and out-organized by Romney's superior campaign organization.

As for the straw poll process itself, I don't know any American that would give up free time on a sweltering Saturday to travel across their state just for free hot dogs and sodas. It seems to me that this is a legitimate, early test of whose message is resonating with that portion of the electorate that is paying attetnion.

Posted by: kent.knudson | August 14, 2007 11:54 AM | Report abuse

I can't believe that leif_ericson, a native of Iowa, has the audacity to say, "I'd much prefer the state lose its exalted status."

As a life-long Citizen of Iowa, I believe Iowa should keep ITS Straw Poll and ITS first-in-the-nation Caucus. The Law demands it. And, as long as, there are Iowans that continue to field these same sentiments, Iowa will ALWAYS be first-in-the-nation.

This is an event to gather money for the Republican Party of Iowa, not the rest of the whiners in the Nation.

I have the utmost respect for Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin. But, if anyone should have dropped out, it should been Ron Paul. I have absolutely no respect for him. And, I wouldn't put it past his "loyal" followers to be the ones to have sent out the fake e-mails (supposedly saying the bus schedules were cancelled or changed) just to get more votes for Ron Paul. They were already trying to get the machines dis-barred. So, I'm sure they already knew the trick about putting the ballots in too soon after another one and it would jam up the machines. They knew that because of the problems at the previous elections.

Like I said in the Des Moines Register, while replying to an article, "So, I guess, it goes to show that those in the back of the line will continue to try any-and-all tricks to get ahead of everyone else."

I stand behind that statement, just like I stand behind the statement, "Congressman Tom Tancredo is the only candidate telling the truth to the American people."

Congressman Tancredo has a straight-forward campaign highlighted with the truth about the Danger OUR Nation Faces From ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION. That's why he's the candidate for protecting OUR Customs, OUR History, and OUR Country.

Thomas "Creampuff" Willems
Marcus, Iowa

Posted by: TheCreampuff | August 14, 2007 12:27 AM | Report abuse

Poll seems useless. About 14,000 voted out of an entire state. One guy way outspent all the others, and duh, he got a few more votes than the next guy. Proved nothing. Waste of money and airtime. Why should one DINKY state in the middle of the corn belt be hailed as the "bellweather" for the nation. How very arcane.

Posted by: 809212876 | August 13, 2007 10:52 PM | Report abuse


Malfunctioning Diebold Voting Machines Run By Romney Team Member At Iowa Poll
Ron Paul snatches fifth place in Straw Poll as voting machines again fail, questions raised over conflicts of interest in oversight personnel.

Steve Watson
Monday, August 13, 2007

Ron Paul supporters were angered at this weekend's straw poll in Iowa by the fact that Diebold voting machines once again malfunctioned and caused significant delays in the count, coupled with the fact that a Mitt Romney team member was placed in charge of overseeing the voting procedure.

Earlier in the week a group of Paul supporters attempted to block the vote based on concerns over insecurities in the Diebold machines. The Paul supporters took their case to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, after being blocked by a lower court, but the appeals panel also refused to join an injunction against the vote, an attorney for the Iowa GOP, Matt McDermott, told the AP.

More concerning was the fact that earlier in the week a huge conflict of interest was exposed by a Ron Paul supporter as it was revealed that oversight of the voting procedure was conducted by a "Mitt Romney Leadership Team" Member.

The Story County Auditor's Office, which was in charge of running the votes is headed by Mary Mosiman who also happens to be on Mitt Romney's "Romney for President Leadership Team".

Posted by: NewRepublican | August 13, 2007 9:24 PM | Report abuse

Crishtonjf wrote: "California has an initiative that will if passed break up the winner take all rule. One state marching to a different drum could prove to be a spoiler."

There are already two states "marching to a different drum"--Nebraska and Maine have apportioned electoral votes by congressional district (with two at-large electoral votes) since 1996 and 1972, respectively. Yeah, they're not big states, and every candidate who's won the at-large votes has always won every district (which pretty surely wouldn't happen in California), but it's not like the idea is new and unused.

Posted by: db.www | August 13, 2007 9:07 PM | Report abuse

I agree that other states could rise to the occasion and become informed leaders in the selection process like Iowans and New Hampshirites have, given the chance. However, I am confused as to the issue of accurately representing the country.

The country, according to the 2000 census is 13% Hispanic and 12% African American. Iowa is 3% and 2%, respectively. That is way below the national average, I agree, but at what point does Iowa begin to show the "inkling of true diversity" in your eyes, PattiFink1? Is nearly one-fourth considered an inkling?

Also, the fact that these states are mostly rural does give an opportunity for rural issues to be addressed. It's true that we need to talk about urban issues, but let's say Ohio goes first. Do you think it's good for the country that the candidates spend all their time in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Gary, and Columbus? Those places certainly deserve their time, but if we never focus on rural states, they never will take part.

Posted by: tdross | August 13, 2007 8:37 PM | Report abuse

This straw poll has nothing to do with democracy. It's a vote buying contest, not an election. It's a nice chance for the pols to tell the farmers how much they're stealing from other states to subsidize their corporate farms though.

Posted by: eco-pharm | August 13, 2007 6:19 PM | Report abuse

emainland's post makes me want to run out and join the Democrats. Where do I go to sign up? Do I have to establish my bona fides as a sanctimonious, elitist shmuck, or can I come as I am?

Posted by: thuff7 | August 13, 2007 5:49 PM | Report abuse

A Romney shill was "repairing" the broken Deibold machine:

Posted by: grunk | August 13, 2007 5:25 PM | Report abuse

Any reporter who writes a sentence like "hard to beat as political theater" about the revolting, porcine gala of Red State yokels in I-owe-way should go back to Journalism 101. How far out of touch is the notion of "political theater" when the nation is in a constitutional crisis, the markets are falling apart, the GOP is promoting a "unitary executive" dictatorship, the Democratic Leadership is failing its test, and the country is mired in the worst geostrategic blunder of modern times under the worst president in American history. Take your "political theater" and stick it you know where.

Posted by: emainland | August 13, 2007 5:17 PM | Report abuse

I think the funny thing about this is how many times the Voting Machines have been mentioned in various articles. Another good one I saw was a person had traveled all the way from Ohio to vote for Mitt. Maybe, just maybe, the ones that did not give it a shot, knew something.

Posted by: lylepink | August 13, 2007 5:14 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Balz,

You ask (although there's no question mark at the end of the sentence) "Why should an event that draws only 14,000 people be given the significance the straw poll receives."

Gosh, that's not hard to answer. The Post, the Times, the Journal, and virtually every other newspaper, television station, news magazine and, yes, political blogger in the country practically beg it to be significant with breathless, wall-to-wall coverage and commentary.

Give it a pass, News Folks. Fourteen-thousand good Iowans can and probably should entertain themselves with a straw ballot, but they should have zero influence on the rest of us.

Posted by: rrickards10 | August 13, 2007 4:51 PM | Report abuse

Iowa has a long history as one of the slowest growing states in the nation.

My Prediction: This history will continue as long as it remains first in the presidential pecking order - as long as Iowa's leading politicians continue to advance the false idea that growth is driven by government, instead of the private sector.

The vision of Iowa's political leadership never extends beyond shameless government rent seeking.

As a native Iowan, I'd much prefer the state lose its exalted status.

Posted by: leif_ericson | August 13, 2007 4:51 PM | Report abuse

If we have to keep this inane system of primaries why don't we even things out a bit. Iowa and New Hampshire death grip on this process is childish - and even more childish is all the other states jockeying their dates to be first. Why don't we rotate which state holds their primaries first so that every state and every region has an equal say. We can even let a computer randomly pick them. Yes that means we can have real scary states like Texas or California go first but they can be balance by real boring ones.

Besides we know that this whole Iowa caucus is only significant in the eyes of the people who prize it the most - the press. I bet if the media found out that some 2nd grade class held an annual vote on who they like best for President a few months before Iowa the media would descend on that school like vultures on a dead rotting carcass. Better yet, shouldn't the press start reporting the news and not generating it.

Posted by: dre7861 | August 13, 2007 3:51 PM | Report abuse

Mark me confused.

On 11 August you and Brother Shear had a front page article about Mitt's historic and dramatic win in Iowa sans vote totals and no mention of the man who isn't there in MSM view (Ron Paul). After 11 pages of excoriating posts for those omissions as well as the importance of the poll, on 12 August the article was "updated" to include the missing information. Then later the article was substituted with one a bit less breathless. The initial posts on the amended article appended to the substitute. The updated 12 August article appears to have "disappeared" like Saddam's WMDs.

Now you're positively negative.

What caused such a change of heart in such a short time?

Posted by: R49Thomas | August 13, 2007 3:29 PM | Report abuse

Tommy Thompson Bows Out of Race

I am from Wisconsin and I am proud of Tommy Thompson. I am also so sad to say that people in our great country did not have the chance to get to know this great man. I am also very sad and frustrated with all our news media. The news media is not helping our authors of our constitution who wanted every person should be treated fairly and with respect. The media wants to cater to candidates with money. That is not the medias job. They should give equal time to all the candidates regarding what the poll says and how much money they have or collected. The way the presidential race is going only the money candidates will be the next President of United states. Not the person who works hard and who got ideas. I see few people made nasty comment about this great former Governor of Wisconsin. I will tell them talk to the democrats in Wisconsin. They will say they love Tommy Thompson because he is a man who can work both sides of the senate and the house. He did it in Wisconsin. He will even take an excellent idea from a politician who bitterly critical of him. He is a good man. Man with a vision. It's too bad the news media did not treat him fairly. I will blame for all the failures of lot of good people who wants to take this country to next level on the NEWSPAPERS AND TV.

Welcome back to Wisconsin Gov Tommy Thompson. The best Governor we ever had in Wisconsin. We love you dearly.

- Shiva

Posted by: LoganKalay | August 13, 2007 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Dan Balz noted: "Iowa plays an important role in the process of selecting presidential candidates, and its electorate has earned its reputation--along with New Hampshire's--for being studious, attentive, inquisitive and engaged. Not many states can make the same claim."

Well surely it is as obvious to Mr. Balz as it is to millions of Americans that if ANY other states were showered with powerful & expensive pre-election personal campaigning by all of the major presidential candidates as Iowa and New Hampshire are today, those "other" states could easily "make the same claim."

Let's say, perhaps a state with even an inkling of true diversity (race, ethnicity, religion) and some major urban areas leads off, such a state's voters would be at least as "studious, attentive, inquisitive and engaged" as the pampered elite voters of Iowa and New Hampshire.

By the time many states vote, they've never personally met any of the candidates (that is, if the candidates have even bothered to visit) and there's nothing left of the apple to bite -- the decision has been made well ahead of any chance for meaningful participation.

Posted by: PattiFink1 | August 13, 2007 3:13 PM | Report abuse

Ditch the nominating conventions.

Ditch the electoral college.

Ditch the jousting for influence among states with elections, caucuses, and straw polls held on different dates.

And most importantly, ditch private financing of public campaigns. Allow only public financing of campaigns and elections.

Have one nationwide primary election, with all 50 states voting on the same day to decide the presidential nominee for each party. Each nominee then picks his or her running mate to represent their party.

Have one general election, with all 50 states voting on the same day, with the people directly electing the president and vice president by popular vote. Winner takes all.

Posted by: hgheiss1 | August 13, 2007 2:58 PM | Report abuse

Silly and juvenile.A huge waste of tme and money.

Posted by: rmosco | August 13, 2007 2:56 PM | Report abuse

Silly and juvenile.A huge waste of tme and money.

Posted by: rmosco | August 13, 2007 2:56 PM | Report abuse

sure tmr, sure.

Posted by: newagent99 | August 13, 2007 2:00 PM | Report abuse

sure tmr, sure.

Posted by: newagent99 | August 13, 2007 2:00 PM | Report abuse

The good thing about the straw poll is that at least it measures the reactions of true republicans. The media love to quote national polls that elevate liberals like Rudy, McCain and Thompson to the top, when in fact rank and file republicans (that is, conservative republicans) favor conservative candidates like Mike Huckabee, Sam Brownback and Ron Paul. The straw poll forces the media to talk about them, at least for a microsecond. If Brownback drops out, almost all his support will go to Huckabee, and then you will see a meteoric rise for Huckabee. Republicans will vote for a conservative. Rudy needs to change parties if he wants the nomination.

Posted by: Bill1230 | August 13, 2007 1:55 PM | Report abuse

The straw polls are as believable a the polls reported by the media outlets on in subject.In poll can be manipulated to achieve the proper outcome. I live in a Democrat state in a strong Democrat city and county, but have found NO ONE who is planning to vote for Hillary Clinton, though "polls" continue to say she is the front runner.

Posted by: tmr3513 | August 13, 2007 1:36 PM | Report abuse

I agree that it's stupid, but we all know the Post wouldn't have written this article on it if they had been Democratic candidates.

Posted by: futbolclif | August 13, 2007 1:24 PM | Report abuse

A more meaningful straw poll will be the ones in Seattle this August and December. The August one will be the Washington Young Democrats one, and the December one will be the 43rd Dist Dems which will have reps from all candidates for Dem offices.

But, on a national level, Iowa is so 20th century. They're done, flip them over.

Posted by: WillSeattle | August 13, 2007 1:17 PM | Report abuse

We all know the system is broke. The debates are not debates, except for a few talk shows the candidates never get to expand on their positions; the devil is in the details and while the details are posted on the candidates' web sites, few voters read them.

Financing is a mess. The electoral system is questionable. California has an initiative that will if passed break up the winner take all rule. One state marching to a different drum could prove to be a spoiler.

But in the end only the voters can put an end to politics as show biz--and may be, in the end it is show biz that we prefer.

Posted by: Crichtonjf | August 13, 2007 1:13 PM | Report abuse

"Regardless of whether or not we like the outcome, it is really up to the people of Iowa to decide if they want to continue with a straw poll or not."

Uhhhh, no. The people of Iowa don't deserve anything. After all, they chose to remain living in Iowa. 'Nuff said.

Posted by: bababooey666 | August 13, 2007 1:12 PM | Report abuse

In a related matter, Meridith V, or whatever her name is made an opinionated comment to the gentleman that is suing 1800 flowers on what clearly is a violation of the consumer protection policy, and for some dimwitted news person to decide that she knows better because he wants to devorce his wife is beyond her job description. The american woman wants a double standard applied everytime some guy wants to dump her for whatever reason. If you now want to run for president stop crying about your own dumb behavior.

Posted by: ktpllrd | August 13, 2007 12:54 PM | Report abuse

I think this whole process is just the silliest thing. It shows just how silly the whole process to elect a president really is. If we continue to elect a president on how he looks, how many favors( free food, free entertainment;etc)he gives, and how much money they have, we are the losers. I heard two newspaper editors from New Hampshire this morning talking about their right to be first to hold a primary. It is a state law there. How ridiculous is that when it comes to the most serious decision we make as Americans concerning our countries leader?
They were saying they have to be first because they are a small state and if they weren't they would never get to meet and have coffee with the candidates and get to know them. How many states are there who never get that chance? Why should people in New Hampshire and Iowa have that chance and why do the candidates ignore other states and play this game? That's all it is to me; a silly game and more pandering from the candidates. I don't understand why people allow themselves to be part of it. The MSM is irresponsible to tout such results in a way to make one candidate the winner and discount the rest. We don't even vote for another 14 months. That's over a year away.

Posted by: RedRose1 | August 13, 2007 12:52 PM | Report abuse

Regardless of whether or not we like the outcome, it is really up to the people of Iowa to decide if they want to continue with a straw poll or not. It's bad enough a Presidential election is so cost ineffective, making our indvidual opinions useless unless we support the big bucks people. Let's not take away our ability to decide how our primary decisions are made.

Posted by: ccohen1 | August 13, 2007 12:42 PM | Report abuse

...nevermind the vote machines broke... why is it that whenever the winner is blatantly obvious, the machine has to break or something has to backfire? And what of what validity is any poll, when the president isn't chosen by a popular vote, but by an electoral college? Polls like these basically serve to pacify the American people, meanwhile who's their next president is already decided. The difference between picketting and actually going on strike. The constant machine malfunctions at just the right times prove it's not the votes that count, it's who counts the votes.

Posted by: kogejoe | August 13, 2007 12:41 PM | Report abuse

After every election, the press offers post-mortem discussions in which everyone agrees there was way too much horse-race coverage, and that next time around, things will be different.

And then next time around, it gets worse.

Posted by: jimh1 | August 13, 2007 12:34 PM | Report abuse

I'm in total agreement. Enough with all straw polls. There's little validity in them, and the media's persistence in reporting heavily on them baffles me.

Posted by: madkat10 | August 13, 2007 12:25 PM | Report abuse

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