Even in death, straw poll hype continues

Candidates, please idle your wallets.

Members of the Republican State Central Committee voted Friday morning to officially end the Iowa Straw Poll, a GOP caucus staple since 1979. No doubt built on good intentions, and once worthy of the national attention it received, it’s later years brought unparalleled focus on money instead of organization.

And while the autopsies now underway will include a host of details concerning the Iowa Straw Poll’s demise — i.e., Gov. Terry Branstad’s early burial plot purchase or the ongoing refusal of GOP leaders to include participants in planning for a new Boone-doggle — the terminal infection was introduced years ago. The disease was more pronounced each year as supporter excitement and campaign organization took a back seat to purchased victories.

Cause of death? Let’s call it T-Paw’s Revenge.

Supporters of the presidential campaign of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty cheered as he spoke at the 2011 Iowa Straw Poll.
Supporters of the presidential campaign of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty cheered as he spoke at the 2011 Iowa Straw Poll.

In the summer of 2011, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was a frequent back-of-the-pack qualifier in popularity polls. For instance, a Des Moines Register poll taken before the straw poll had him in sixth place. Pawlenty’s goal was to use the excitement of the straw poll to move up a bit. While he wouldn’t have turned down a first-place finish, Pawlenty was content to beat current expectations and the campaign made a not-so-insignificant investment toward that goal. There were participant tickets, buses, booth space and all the other carnival-like accouterments caucusgoers had come to expect.

But even as Pawlenty walked the tightrope — wanting to give the pay-to-play enough credence to possibly earn his candidacy a bounce, and not so much as to benefit others likely to finish ahead of him — national media especially began a drumbeat of false importance.

“You guys get all hung up on a specific finishing spot,” Pawlenty told the media. “If the other two are viewed as not long-term, credible national candidates, that’s less significant than if they are.”

When the votes that never actually mattered were counted, Pawlenty finished third, well behind Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul, but about 500 ballots ahead of Rick Santorum, the eventual winner of the Iowa caucuses. Still, for the national media — and some state folks as well — the narrative would be that, despite a year of burning shoe leather in Iowa, support lagged. The campaign’s organizational skills were called into question, as was his ability to connect with voters through retail politics.

Within days, amid more and more national assertions that Pawlenty offered no excitement, no connection and no future, the campaign was officially ended.

“I wish it would have been different, but obviously the pathway forward for me doesn’t really exist, so we’re going to end the campaign,” Pawlenty said during his announcement.

Having put so much into the straw poll — the event itself as well as preliminary campaigning in attempts to shore up support — the campaign was short on funds and not enticing new money due to its placement in an Ames contest in which not one vote of substance was cast.

Pawlenty understood the straw poll was a dog and pony show with an overpriced ticket: “The party is going to be now more broadly discussing who they want for their candidate, not just in Iowa, but in other places around the country. So we don’t know what this ultimately will look like.”

Before all the air was removed from Ron Paul’s inflatable “The Sliding Dollar” and Uncle Sam, the novelty of his and Bachmann’s national candidacies began to wane. Iowans became more interested in the upcoming votes that would actually mean something. And without Pawlenty in the race, Mitt Romney, who wisely gave the 2011 straw poll a pass, could more easily draw contrast between his perceived calm, steadfastness and the more colorful, untested cast of candidates remaining.

Friday’s announcement that the straw poll would end wasn’t necessarily a surprise, although I’m hopeful Iowa Republicans can remake the event as something just as kitschy, but less risky for the candidates they are supporting.

And when it comes to the autopsies, which will be filled to the brim with fond memories of the political carnival, don’t believe the hype. It was fun, but it never should have mattered.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on June 14, 2015.