Bring Back the Iowa Straw Poll

(Bloomberg View) -- I got a lot of things wrong during the Republican presidential nomination battle last time -- a lot of things -- but since Harry Enten is reminding us that we're halfway between the last Iowa caucuses and the next ones, I'll argue I got one thing right: Republicans should never have given up the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa. 

Yes, yes, I know: Ames didn't predict caucus winners, let alone nominees. And Ames was mostly a bad joke, less an honest test of anything and more a weird generator of oddball outcomes.

Nevertheless, it was good for the Republican Party. Republicans had, by some measures, done a better job of early winnowing than Democrats during the era that Ames was a big deal (from the 1980 cycle through 2012). 

I'm not saying that the candidates who dropped out early, such as Tim Pawlenty in 2012, were always the correctly chosen losers in some sense. But I'm not convinced it was totally random, either; it's quite likely that Republican party actors adjusted their views of candidate performance at Ames for whether they had put in a serious effort there, and for whether their candidates were particularly suited to Iowa. Still, I'll concede that it's very possible Ames contributed to eliminating one or more contenders over the years who should have been given more of a chance. 

Even if that's true, however, the way 2016 played out showed very clearly that Republican party actors have some serious difficulties when it comes to coordinating over a nominee. The truth is that they would have been far better off if some entirely random process had eliminated several of them in August 2015. Granted, winnowing happened nevertheless: Five candidates dropped out before the Iowa caucuses. But for whatever reason, winnowing was always just half a step too slow, leading eventually to a split field well into the primaries. 

I'm not saying that if the Ames Straw Poll had gone forward that Donald Trump would have been defeated in his nomination bid. We'll never know whether better coordination would have defeated him or not. What we can say, however, is that stable rules and processes help parties thrive, and messing with Ames took a little bit of stability out of the system. And that probably was bad for the party. 

Could Ames be revived? Probably. The Iowa Republican Party certainly could schedule it next time around (presumably in 2024; even if there's a nomination challenge to Trump, it's unlikely the Iowa state party would want to visibly and officially encourage it). Whether the candidates would go along is hard to predict; they were increasingly unhappy with the event over the years. And, yes, it was in many respects a goofy event. Still, if I were a Republican who was upset about the way things played out in the 2016 nomination process, I'd be looking for ways to accelerate winnowing next time around. 

1. Kathryn Dunn Tenpas at the Monkey Cage on White House turnover and the Trump administration.

2. John Hudak at Brookings on veterans and medical marijuana

3. Perry Bacon Jr. on the (dim) prospects for an infrastructure bill

4. Margaret Sullivan goes in depth on attitudes toward the media.

5. And my Bloomberg View colleague Justin Fox on incarceration

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Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. 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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