After this past weekend, perhaps Republicans will finally end the disastrous Iowa Straw Poll. In five tries, the circus in Ames has picked a future president once, which is about the same success rate you’d get by picking names from a hat.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney won it last time. If this year’s winner, Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, goes on to become president, I will come to your house and mow your lawn (to borrow a marker used by former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty at last week’s Republican debate).
The straw poll does little for winners. For losers, though, it can be decisive; it is where presidential dreams go to die. Ask Pawlenty, who finished third. Before he could take to the seas with his executive experience as a two-term governor of a blue state, a gathering of about 16,000 Iowans scuttled his candidacy before it left port. Pawlenty isn’t the best candidate in the world, but compared to Bachmann he looks like George Washington. He dropped out of the race on Sunday.
You wonder why Republicans allow this mix of carnival and county fair to have such an outsize impact. With country guitars twanging, ice cream melting, Randy Travis singing and food everywhere, the straw poll is primarily a commercial enterprise designed to fill the coffers of the Iowa Republican Party. Its standards of bribery would make a traffic cop in Lagos blush. Just about every vote is bought and paid for. If a Republican attends the straw poll without being treated to the $30 ticket, being driven to the event and stuffing himself to the gills on free food, he’s a chump.
Bachmann was tailor-made to appeal to the select group of activists who dominate the event. A vibrant bundle of energy, she giddily pitched red meat to the extremist wing of her party. As Pawlenty struggled to throw a punch, balancing his appeal to the right with awareness of the realities of governing, Bachmann was all elbows and atmospherics.
Republicans rewarded her while punishing Pawlenty. His loss among a tiny sample of voters in the middle of Iowa meant he would be unable to raise the money necessary to continue. Bachmann, meanwhile, moved to the front rank of Republican candidates on the strength of 4,823 votes (about 0.00008 of the total Senator John McCain earned in losing the 2008 election). She may well self-destruct. If she doesn’t, the party will eventually find a way to stop her. She’ll end up with a speaking role at the Republican National Convention -- outside prime time.
Texas Governor Rick Perry not only spurned the whole ridiculous exercise in Ames, he overshadowed it. While Bachmann was maneuvering straw poll voters into her air-conditioned tent, Perry had the stage all to himself in South Carolina, where he announced his presidential candidacy on the same day. So small are the stakes in Ames that Perry won instant credibility with 718 write-in votes -- more than Romney, who was actually on the ballot.
Perry is supposed to fuse the party’s pragmatic wing, which has been waiting for a viable alternative to Romney, with its Tea Party base and Christian hard core. Judging from the response of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, which is home base for Republican free-market fundamentalists, Perry has work to do. The Journal greeted his entry in the race by hoping that “perhaps someone still off the field will step in and run.” Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat reinforced that plea, begging New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to make a run.
Having nurtured a volatile right-wing insurgency to counter Obama, Republicans are now living with the results, one of which is that any candidate who appears mainstream and reasonable is shunned. The prospects of more moderate candidates like Christie -- not to mention Pawlenty and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who fared poorly in Ames -- would be improved if they didn’t face a pointless gantlet in Iowa months before the first primaries.
We’ll soon find out whether Perry has staying power or if he is this year’s version of former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, who was hailed as a Republican savior in 2008 but faded so fast that he’s now selling reverse mortgages to seniors on late-night cable TV. Perry is a fundraising savant, having amassed more than $100 million in three statewide campaigns in Texas. And he isn’t named Romney -- a huge asset in Republican politics this year.
If Perry wins the presidency in 2012, his vision of a pre-New Deal society, in which Social Security and Medicare wither, education funds are threadbare and health care is a privilege (one-fourth of Texans lack health insurance), won’t be much fun. But if he proves that the road to the White House doesn’t have to pass through Iowa in August, he’ll do his party a favor, sounding a death knell for a process by which a politician arrives in Ames a viable national candidate and leaves a broken has-been. That’s a high price to pay for an air-conditioned tent and free hot dogs.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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