The key to grasping the place of Ames in the Republican nomination process is that it occurs right in the middle of the invisible primary—that portion of the process that takes place before voters are involved. During this period, candidates aren’t seeking the support of rank-and-file Republicans; they are appealing to party insiders of various kinds: party-aligned interest groups and media; governing and campaign professionals; formal party officials; and activists. From the point of view of those actors, the invisible primary is a time to sort out conflicts and coordinate action.
Walter Shapiro has an article in the New Republic about the overhyping of the Iowa Straw Polls.
Over the years, I have reached a different conclusion: The Iowa Straw Poll is one of the most insidious events in politics. Even though the straw poll is about as scientific as sorcery, political reporters over-hype the results and pretend that they mean something.
I’m normally very sympathetic to these arguments, and I get what Shapiro is getting at. Unfortunately, I have to disagree with his premise, and I wonder if he secretly does too. Shapiro starts by noting how unrepresentative of the larger Republican party the Straw Poll is:
In November 2008, 682,000 Iowa voters cast their ballots for McCain. The 119,000 Republicans who participated in the 2008 caucuses were the party stalwarts. But the 14,000 Republicans who voted in the 2007 straw poll were a microcosm of that microcosm—just 12 percent of the caucus attendees and a microscopic 2 percent of McCain voters. N
Yes, the event may only be made up of the most hardcore Republicans, but who does Shapiro thinks decide primaries? I’ll again encourage people to read my professor, Hans Noel’s book, The Party Decides, to get an idea of how modern presidential primaries really work. Events like the Straw Poll are a good way for party elites to test the loyalty of candidates to their policy preferences, while simultaneously examining their electablity. These events may play a large roll in the “invisible primary” that is actually quite crucial in determining who winds up getting the party’s nomination.
But my problem with Shapiro’s argument is not just that these elite events matter, it’s that he himself seems to admit that in his piece, which at times almost contradicts itself. As an example, Shapiro states:
Given the skewed nature of the event, you might think journalists would ignore the results. But, on the contrary, too many of my colleagues in the press inflate the straw poll’s significance, because they are desperate for any tangible numbers to enliven the long wait until convention delegates are actually selected.
Then, in the very next sentence!
And so the consequences of failure at the straw poll can be dramatic. In 1999, a disappointing sixth-place finish at Ames forced Lamar Alexander out of the race immediately after the results were in. The poll also fatally damaged the campaign of Elizabeth Dole, who dropped out two months later.
Ending the campaigns of two candidates doesn’t sound like an insignificant event. I sympathize with Shapiro’s frustration over something that’s important only because we say it’s important (cable news with its small audience comes to mind), but that doesn’t mean it’s not important! One could make the same argument about overstating importance to a wide number of things such as the Iowa Caucus itself. After all, it’s only so many delegates, but we make it out to be a big deal! For better or worse, it is a big deal and I think it would be wise to pay attention to what happens there.