Monday, August 15, 2011

The 2011 Ames Straw Poll and the Future of the Iowa Caucuses

This is one instance where having two bites at the apple might actually pay off for Iowa. But it will take a break from historical precedent in the Hawkeye state for that to happen.

Look, FHQ does not purport to tell Iowa Republicans who attended and voted in yesterday's Ames Straw Poll that their decision was the wrong one.1 That said, there are limits to how embattled Presidential Obama will be in 2012 due to the economy if the Republican Party nominates a candidate well off the right flank of the general electorate. Rightly or wrongly, Michele Bachmann is one of those candidates. So, too, is Ron Paul. Tim Pawlenty -- now out of the race following Ames -- was not. That's presidential nomination politics. Pawlenty becomes an example of a candidate running for 2012 who won't actually be running in 2012. Bachmann and Paul move on taking the win and show spots respectively.

And as Nate Silver pointed out Saturday:
Since the event [Ames Straw Poll] began in 1979, the [Republican] candidate winning the Iowa caucus has placed first or second in the straw poll every time.
That leaves Bachmann, Paul or a break from history given the final tally from Ames. And as Silver rightly highlights, with such a small sample size -- only five observations -- we are not dealing with a robust dataset. Still the straw poll is an event that has had some predictive power in terms of the subsequent Iowa caucuses. Does that make either Congresswoman Bachmann or Congressman Paul a shoo-in for an Iowa caucus win? Does that increase the likelihood of the sixth time producing a different result than previous observations?

FHQ doesn't know. What I do know is that Iowa politicians, activists and likely Iowa caucus-goers are going to have to have a good look at the process over the next few months and years. And they are lucky to have that second crack at things when the caucuses roll around next year (???). The caucuses' position on the calendar in future cycles may depend on it.

I wouldn't call it buyer's remorse because Iowa Republicans haven't bought anything yet, but they may select their way out of their prime position if Hawkeye caucus-goers prove inefficient at performing the one thing Iowa has the privilege of: winnowing the field down. As I said last week, Iowa's job has never been to predict the winner. The Hawkeye state begins to separate the wheat from the chaff. If, however, Iowa Republicans continually push the ultimate nominee into the chaff pile -- slotting Perry and Romney into sixth and seventh place, for instance -- the RNC will be more likely explore its options at the front of the calendar. And again, that is not so much for not picking the winner so much as winnowing the field inefficiently: tilting the race and the remaining viable field of candidates in a more rightward direction ideologically.

The old rule of thumb -- all things being held equal -- has always been that the top three out of Iowa move on to New Hampshire and the top two from New Hampshire move on to South Carolina, Florida, Super Tuesday and perhaps beyond. But if Iowa's top three are not ideologically representative of Republicans nationally or if Iowa's result is essentially ignored in subsequent contests, then what's Iowa doing at the front of the queue?

Why indeed? The RNC may ask itself that in the next few months. FHQ is not one to jump on this quadrennial "Iowa doesn't deserve to always be first" bandwagon, but when you begin matching up the outcome of the straw poll with the historical significance of the straw poll, it doesn't necessarily bode well -- small sample size statistics aside.

There are a couple of interesting notes to add into all of this.
1. This may all be moot if the Perry candidacy takes flight and he emerges as the main counter to Mitt Romney in the race. All of the "Iowa as first in the nation is doomed" people will disappear for another few years or at least until another moderate frontrunner decides to "skip" Iowa.2

2. The strange twist of fate is that Iowa Democrats may be the one group to help their Hawkeye Republican brethren. Iowa Democrats don't have the same perception problems as Iowa Republicans. They aren't viewed as tilting the race to the left in the same way that the Republican contest does to the right. If the Democratic National Committee decides to leave the Iowa and New Hampshire question off the table in its 2016 delegate selection rules discussion, then Iowa Republicans may have some leverage with the RNC. However...

First of all, there is no indication that the DNC would not consider a challenge to Iowa's and New Hampshire's positions. It was discussed but tabled for 2014 by the Rules and Bylaws Committee during its consideration of the 2012 delegate selection rules in 2010. Even then, it didn't appear that the committee was really willing to open that can of worms in 2010 or in the future. What was clear was that another round of opening the pre-window to additional states would be the likely compromise. In other words, Iowa and New Hampshire keep their positions, but additional states beyond just South Carolina and Nevada would be added to the pre-Super Tuesday period.3

Secondly, it isn't clear yet whether the RNC will even have a competitive nomination battle in 2016 in which case Iowa probably lives to see another day at the beginning of the Republican calendar.

Of course, how Iowa Republicans decide in 2012 may have an impact on that.

Michele Bachmann: 4823 votes
Ron Paul: 4671
Tim Pawlenty: 2293
Rick Santorum: 1567
Herman Cain: 1456
Rick Perry (write in): 718
Mitt Romney: 567
Newt Gingrich: 385
Jon Huntsman: 69
Thad McCotter: 35

1 After all, a presidential nomination is a party decision with the aims of the members of the party being paramount. The problem is that those aims are not always clearly defined (or that the definition changes over time). Often it is a matter of the difference in valuing ideology over electoral success or vice versa. There is often a happy medium between the two -- again, that's nomination politics -- but it is rare for a party to drift toward pure ideology without it having an impact on the party's electoral success in the general election.

2 There is no skipping, only downplaying and contesting at a lower level.

3 I tweeted last night in a response to a question about which states might fill out those slots that I thought Florida and Michigan might be natural fits for additional slots. That may be true. The DNC would hear from all interested states first and make a decision. Part of the Rules and Bylaws Committee decision would be based on the likelihood of a primary move in accordance with the new rules being made. As things stand in 2011, both Florida and Michigan are Republican-controlled state governments. Should those Republicans remain in power, they may not be interested in aiding the Democratic Party in nominating their general election candidate. Much will depend on which party/parties actually have competitive nomination races in 2016.

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