Candidates snub the Iowa Straw Poll

The Iowa Straw Poll (nee Ames Straw Poll) on presidential contenders has fallen on hard times. Since 1979, the quadrennial event has been a beauty-contest vote attached to a fundraiser for the Iowa Republican Party. It has nothing to do with selection of a party’s presidential delegates that starts early the next year in the Iowa caucuses, but it has attracted plenty of attention over the years.

This time, however, the leading Republican candidates nationally – Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio – are ready to skip, or appear to be ready to skip, entering the straw poll. Even former Iowa caucus winners Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum don’t seem interested in trying their luck.

Why? It appears the Republican candidates have learned (or overlearned) a lesson from 2012, when Michele Bachmann won the straw poll but failed to gain anything from it, while another GOP contender, Tim Pawlenty, dropped out after a disappointing showing. The takeaway: Winning won’t help a long shot, while doing badly can destroy a seemingly viable candidate.

Yet the Iowa Straw Poll will go on, and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if the candidate who wins it (or even a runner-up) gets a bit of a boost in the national polls. If that happens, it would tend to strengthen the event in the next contested Republican nomination cycle.

The event became a big deal in the first place because, during the invisible primary, everyone – the party actors, media and voters – are desperate for any objective-seeming indication of how the candidates are doing. Or, if that information isn’t available, they want at least something that can count as real, hard news. If nothing else, the straw poll offers the media actual results to interpret. And it has always been an August event (this year’s iteration will take place in Boone on Aug. 8) when Washington, and news out of Washington, is normally quiet.

The Iowa straw poll is neither a test of public opinion (as a primary election can be) nor a real indication of what party actors think. But doing well in the straw poll has traditionally required well-developed campaign organizations to succeed. So long as no one over-interprets the results, it’s a harmless part of the winnowing process.

In some ways, this year’s configuration of candidates is suited to hurt the straw poll. The top three contenders are all more worried about being embarrassed in Iowa than they are in need of an early public opinion surge. Huckabee and Santorum need to do well in the caucuses, but winning the straw poll won’t help with that and losing it would be a blow in a state each of them needs. So that’s five viable candidates without an incentive to compete. And thanks to that non-existent bounce that Bachmann received last time, they aren’t too worried about a Rick Perry or Chris Christie or Carly Fiorina bounce.

A different candidate field would have changed those incentives. If next time there’s a strong front-runner and several rivals looking for some media oxygen, it’s easy to imagine all of them turning to the straw poll for a chance at sparking a real polling surge. That will be more likely if this year’s winner seems to be helped by it.

Or if Ben Carson wins this year, for example, and Fiorina is second, yet neither appears to gain from it, it’s possible the Iowa Republican Party will give up on the event. If so, however, odds are something will emerge to replace it. After all, three years (or so) of an invisible presidential primary just cries out for something visible.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. Readers may send him email at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.