Republicans Wanted a World With No Straw Poll, and They Got Trump

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- With August ending, it’s worth remembering that we are not, as we once would have expected, a year away from the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa. Nor are we looking back three years to the 2015 Ames Straw Poll. That’s because Republicans foolishly ended that event in 2015. And that might just be why Donald Trump won the nomination in 2016.

The straw poll was, to be sure, a ridiculous event. Candidates basically paid for votes. As many over the years noted, the straw poll didn’t do a very good job of predicting either the winner of the Iowa caucuses or the eventual nominee — as the final caucus winner, Michelle Bachmann in 2013, could tell us. 

So why did it matter — or at least perhaps matter — that there was no straw poll in 2015?

Parties are coalitions, and in the U.S. they are loose, informal, networked coalitions. It’s hard for them to successfully compete and coordinate over nominations — even though nominations are extremely important in that they, in effect, define the parties. The more stable the rules and processes in which party actors operate, the easier it is for them to reach collective decisions. That’s especially true with presidential nominations, in which the entire sprawling, decentralized, national party has to reach a decision together.

Eliminating the straw poll, which was traditionally the first important event in the nomination process, was a change in the process. Perhaps a very important one. Over the years, party actors had come to use the results of the straw poll — no matter how foolish they might have thought it was — as the first indication of which candidates had their act together and were able to demonstrate at least some appeal to the voters.

It’s not just that those who disappointed at Ames sometimes lost support and wound up dropping out, sometimes very quickly, as with Tim Pawlenty in 2011. Remember those huge Republican debates in 2015-16, so large that they needed a pre-debate for the also-rans? There’s no way to know for sure, but it seems quite plausible that those fields would have been winnowed down just a bit more efficiently had one or more straw poll losers dropped out. That alone might have changed things. 

But I think the more important point is that someone would have won at Ames, and almost certainly the winner would have generated a fair amount of publicity. 

Suppose that winner was Donald Trump. Wouldn’t that have helped him? Perhaps not. A Trump win at Ames would have been impressive, and convinced Republican Party actors to take Trump more seriously — and therefore provided a real push to organize and coordinate against him.

If, on the other hand, one of the several candidates whom party actors considered acceptable had won in Ames, that might have been just what it took for party actors to converge on that winner. A strong enough boost to give that winner the nomination? Maybe.

But what if one of the other unlikely nominees — Ben Carson, perhaps — won in Ames? Perhaps that winner displaces Trump altogether. Or, perhaps party actors coordinate to beat Carson, which also winds up helping them defeat Trump. 

None of this, of course, proves that holding the Ames straw poll in August 2013 would have been enough to change the outcome of the entire nomination. It’s quite possible that Trump’s inherent appeal to Republican primary voters was strong enough that it didn’t matter what else happened. It’s also possible that the same media saturation coverage that helped Trump would have happened regardless of what else was going on. But it’s also true that Trump’s primary win was relatively narrow, and that it wouldn’t have taken a whole lot of change to keep him from getting the delegates he needed.

Either way, it’s a good reminder that messing with the process — even by eliminating something that virtually everyone thought was stupid — can have serious consequences. That doesn’t mean parties should never change how they do things. But don’t forget about those consequences. 

1. Michael Tester at the Monkey Cage on partisan polarization over racial slurs

2. Also at the Monkey Cage: Joseph Uscinski and Casey Klofstad on public opinion and the QAnon conspiracy theory

3. Oona Hathaway at Just Security on when a president attacks a bureaucrat.

4. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Noah Smith on Nafta and China

5. Fred Kaplan on Trump and James Mattis.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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