From 2007- The Iowa Straw Poll should be Ignored not Imported

By Charlie Arlinghaus on August 11, 2011
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Way back in 2007, I offered my reaction to the Ames Straw Poll in my Union Leader column.

I don’t care who won the so-called Iowa Straw Poll but I know who lost: we all did. The Iowa straw poll manages to encapsulate in one event all the worst aspects of American politics. It should be abolished or ignored and any attempt to import its tawdriness into New Hampshire should be stamped out.

The poll is a very recent tradition. It is a Republican party shakedown that masquerades as a test of political strength. In the midst of tedious, meaningless debates that almost no one watches, a bored media is so starved for something vaguely resembling news that they line up, join the carnival, and pay an inordinate amount of attention to an odd show that tests little except a candidate’s willingness to be duped into spending silly amounts of money on silly things.

Only the Republican party holds one of these silly things. Every candidate speaks and Iowa residents who pay $35 can vote. In practice, candidates buy thousands of tickets for people they hope vote for them. They rent hundreds of buses to pack the hall with the supporters they each bought and set up hospitality tents with bands and air conditioning and ribs and elaborate feasts.

Rather than being a quick straw poll of people already assembled for a purpose, it is a test of buying and busing. NBC’s description of the results included a statement of Mike Huckabee’s surprising finish. NBC’s “First Read” reported that Huckabee “actually received more votes than he bought, a noble feat in the straw poll.”

The worst of politics was wisely skipped by two of the better funded candidates, McCain and Guiliani. As planning approached, rumors were rampant that if one skipped the other would follow suit so both bowed out, saving themselves between $2 and $3 million each.

The money they saved wouldn’t have been spent getting a message across and trying to convince voters. It would have spent buying tickets, busing a few thousand people from across the state, and putting on lavish buffet feasts.

But the real threat is not just a waste of time and money. It threatens the process and threatens to be imported into New Hampshire.

The excuse for having a few small states like Iowa or New Hampshire start the process is that small contests allow less well-funded candidates to test a message, talk to the people, and buy their votes with ideas.

Having candidates chosen by citizens in primaries rather than officials and donors in small rooms was an innovation of a hundred years ago. The best funded candidate or the best known candidate has to work as hard as everyone else and is not guaranteed success. Phil Gramm had the most money in 1996 and dropped out before the New Hampshire primary. Elizabeth Dole led in the polls a year before the primary but didn’t make it to the starting line.

Candidates travel across the state speaking in town halls or to small groups of party faithful. There is no entrance fee. Groups don’t demand tribute to speak as at the ‘straw poll.’ No one can buy better placement or any other special consideration. Money doesn’t talk. Everyone gets a chance and the voters decide.

But the straw poll disease is creeping in. Some people wonder why only Iowa Republicans get to shake down wealthy candidates. A few weeks ago here in New Hampshire, the GOP abandoned tradition for one failed experiment with pay or play fees at a state party fundraiser. That sort of tactic, like the Straw Poll Shakedown, will destroy a state’s claim on tradition.

A small state should go first so money doesn’t determine all. New Hampshire has had a nice tradition of playing fair. Candidates are all treated seriously and with respect. A long shot can build momentum with serious minded voters looking not to cash in but to consider competing visions for the future.

As long as we understand the primary to be a privilege we must respect, we have a reasonable claim to continuing a tradition. When that privilege makes us jaded, we will forfeit any claim.

The Iowa straw poll is a nice story for Mike Huckabee, the little engine that could. But behind the lines is a worrisome sideshow that should be abolished before it corrupts Iowa. At a minimum, the Granite State should ignore its siren song. If we don’t ignore it, we should abandon our pretensions and step aside gracefully or be pushed out having overstayed our welcome.

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