Last week nothing important happened in Iowa.
Originally, the Hawkeye State was to hold its third Republican straw poll in 12 years, which generally served as both an unofficial kickoff event in the fight for the GOP presidential nomination and a thinning of the herd, as number of lukewarm candidates and more serious contenders who failed to meet expectations in the poll generally pull the plug on their White House explorations.
Former vice-president Dan Quayle, ex-Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, then-US Senator Sam Brownback, former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, then-Congressman Thad McCotter and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty all ended their presidential candidacies after disappointing showings in the straw poll.
However, in 2015 it would be the straw poll itself getting its plug yanked.
Opposition to holding the event began in 2012 when the Republican governor of Iowa opined that the straw poll had outlived its usefulness. For a while the RNC had weighed whether the straw poll was an actual election and thus a potential violation on the tightly written rules to crack down on premature caucuses and primaries.
Though the national GOP permitted the straw poll, that they scheduled their national meeting and first presidential debate the same week certainly complicated things for the Iowa Republican Party.
In addition to narrowing the field of candidates, the Iowa straw poll had some other virtues, one was providing a degree of accessibility to a potential future president. In an era where just getting your picture taken with a leading candidate could run $50,000, the Iowa Straw Poll was one of the few major political venues where the public could interact with multiple presidential candidates in a day.
And then there was the food.
Whatever funds remaining after the Iowa GOP received their generous vig (more on that later) was blown serving up free meals to attendees. Pawlenty had a refrigerated Dairy Queen 18-wheeler backed up to his tent distributing Blizzards. Team Bachmann had “meat sundaes”, which consisted of brisket and mashed potatoes arranged in the form of the ice cream dish. Herman Cain brought in Godfather’s pizza while the cash-strapped McCotter operation had a humble ice cream truck and handed out “bomb pops”. Brownback and ex-Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee had dueling barbeque tents in 2007.
One could eat unhealthily well in Ames once every four years. Now one needs to drive down to the State Fair 36 miles south on I-35.
Unfortunately the Iowa GOP got carried away and ended up wringing the neck of the golden goose that had been so good to the state party over the years. The last “straw” was at the 2011 event they monetized by auctioning to presidential campaigns rented real estate on the grounds of Iowa State University’s campus. Their avarice had led to unsustainable absurdity and motivated the university to get a piece of the action.
The two non-Hawkeyes most responsible for killing the straw poll were former Texas governor Rick Perry and conservative activist Erick Erickson. The former launched his first presidential campaign at Erickson’s annual conservative grassroots activist event the same day as the 2011 Iowa straw poll, which was held 1200 miles east of Ames in Charleston, South Carolina.
Perry’s announcement was simulcast in a crowded tent at the straw poll and his entrance effectively stole the thunder of the actual winner of the Iowa event, then-US Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
Instead of receiving a bounce, Bachmann’s campaign began a long downward spiral that would crash in the very state where she was born. After winning the straw poll with 4,823 votes, Bachmann would run dead last of the six candidates competing in the Iowa caucuses five months later.
In fact Bachmann’s straw poll “victory” would serve as a means of discrediting the event.
Erickson was looking to finish the straw poll off in 2015 when he scheduled his gathering the same weekend. When the Iowa GOP officially cancelled their event, I received a Facebook message from an exultant associate of Erickson, screaming “DOWN GOES FRAZIER! DOWN GOES FRAZIER.”
I knew what it meant and they were right to take credit, as Red State had stolen the candidates and thus the straw poll.
Erickson might as well donned a flight suit and posed under a “Mission Accomplished” banner from the deck of the USS Iowa.
The demise of the greatest political carnival in America has greater meaning than a smaller bank account for the Iowa GOP.
There would probably be at least four fewer candidates in the race today had the straw poll been conducted in Boone last week.
Instead of having a winnowed field, the GOP presidential race remains a clown car crammed with 17 candidates in a field that will remain jammed past Labor Day.