Guest column: Iowa’s GOP should end straw poll


Photo: Karuna Ang/Iowa State Daily

Ron Paul’s supporters cheer for him as he is announced as the runner-up of the 2011 Ames Straw Poll on Aug. 13 at Hilton Coliseum. 

Last month, ISU President Steven Leath pulled the plug on Veishea, the school’s long-running spring festival. This month, the Republican State Central Committee could do the same with the Ames Presidential Straw Poll.

For years, Veishea had been a showcase for the university with parades, cherry pies and festive events. But at night, a few rotten eggs spoiled the celebration. Likewise, the Ames Straw Poll had given the Republican Party an opportunity to shine — with the pageantry of a parade of candidates along with plenty of good food and music. But as night fell and the votes were counted, a few bad candidates have left the GOP with egg on its face.

Iowa Republicans should end the Ames Straw Poll because it damages the party’s ability to win the White House and jeopardizes Iowa’s status as the first caucus in the nation for both Republicans and Democrats.

Nationally, the Republican Party has been hijacked by extreme factions, making it difficult to appeal to the emerging voting majorities across the country, which is necessary to win the White House. The Ames Straw Poll only encourages these elements and makes it difficult for moderate, electable candidates to prevail in the Iowa caucus and beyond.

The first Ames Straw Poll was won by George H.W. Bush in 1979. He went on to win the vice-presidency the following year and later occupy the White House. The only other Straw Poll winner to capture the presidency was his son, George W. Bush, who won the 1999 poll.

But most top-finishers in the Poll were unelectable candidates and the media exposure they received from Ames only tarnished the image of Iowa as a barometer of the national electorate and a reasonable starting point for the selection of the president.

Television evangelist Pat Robertson won the poll in 1987, former Texas Sen. Phil Graham tied for first in 1995, businessman Steve Forbes finished second in 1999, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee finished second in 2007 and tea-party U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann won the latest poll in 2011. None of those candidates would have been able to carry their party to victory in a November election.

The Straw Poll represents a problem the Republican Party has, both statewide and nationwide, as fringe elements have gained undue influence.  Whether it is evangelical Christians pushing for candidates like Robertson or tea party efforts for Bachmann, the GOP is left looking like a party in disarray with a range of sideshow candidates.

The Ames Straw Poll becomes false validation for fringe candidates at the expense of more electable leaders. The 2016 “charade” of candidates has already begun with unelectable Texas Sen. Ted Cruz pandering to the religious right and physician activist Ben Carson winning a recent Polk County GOP straw poll.

The poll has wrecked the campaigns of several serious politicians. In 1999, Tennessean Lamar Alexander dropped out of the race after a fifth place finish. In 2007, Wisconsin’s Tommy Thompson finished sixth and exited the next day. The latest casualty of the poll was Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty, who finished third in 2011. All three had been popular and effective governors who possessed far more experience and electability than people like Robertson, Forbes, Bachmann or Cruz.

Gov. Branstad has said the poll may have “outlived its usefulness.” The new state central committee, which includes a changing of the guard to more moderate members, could effect changes at their meeting later this month.

The Iowa GOP should take a page from President Leath’s book and simply scrap the poll. Like the Veishea celebration, the Ames Straw Poll has a Jekyll and Hyde component. But if Iowa must grudgingly lose a tradition like Veishea, then waving goodbye to the Ames Straw Poll should be as easy as cherry pie.