The Iowa Straw Poll–Who Cares?

That the Iowa straw poll is accorded political significance is ridiculous. Not a single delegate is at stake, and the straw poll is even more laughably unrepresentative than an internet poll. The number of participants is absurdly small; the event can be won with fewer than 5,000 supporters. And everyone acknowledges that the straw poll is mostly an exercise in bus logistics and party-planning.

Of course, the Iowa straw poll is one of a number of events in the political cycle whose importance seems disproportionate. Why, exactly, do Iowa caucus-goers and New Hampshire voters play such an outsized role in our political life? Because they come first. And, likewise, people pay attention to the Iowa straw poll because it is the first test of strength on the calendar, no matter how silly a test it may be.

Michele Bachmann won the straw poll with 4,823 votes. No surprise there. Ron Paul was a close second; no surprise there, either. The Paul-bots will always shine in this kind of self-selected event. Tim Pawlenty finished third, with around 2,500 votes. Was that an acceptable performance, or not? Pawlenty made it clear that he isn’t going away; not yet, anyway. He said:

We made progress in moving from the back of the pack into a competitive position for the caucuses, but we have a lot more work to do. This is a long process to restore America — we are just beginning and I’m looking forward to a great campaign.

The real issue for Pawlenty is how donors perceive the results of the straw poll. If his third-place finish causes donors to close their wallets, his campaign will sink. If his donors don’t think the poll means anything, then it doesn’t.

Meanwhile, the straw poll provides one more opportunity to comment on the expectations game. Mitt Romney won the event four years ago, but this year he chose not to compete. Why? Presumably because he knew he would be clobbered by Bachmann. So why isn’t his unwillingness to engage Bachmann in Iowa the big story? And all the other candidates–Gingrich, Cain, Santorum et al.–did worse than Pawlenty. So why is it only Pawlenty who is deemed to suffer from not finishing first or second? Because that is how the expectations game is played.

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