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John E. Sununu

Iowa’s tarnished straw-poll circus

By John E. Sununu
August 22, 2011

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IMAGINE FOR a moment a campaign for chancellor of Germany. Angela Merkel, competing against an open field for her party’s nomination, participates in a traditional event in Düsseldorf, where each candidate’s supporters purchase slots on a giant carnival roulette wheel. The more supporters, the better one’s chances of taking the trial poll. At midnight, the party chairman spins the wheel to see who wins.

Too ridiculous to be true? Yes. But to anyone outside America - and most people outside Iowa - the Ames straw poll must look equally bizarre and nearly as random. GOP presidential candidates purchase tickets for “voters’’ who may or may not vote their way. Tents, bands, and endless barbeque are employed to “convince’’ the undecided that a particular candidate is best suited to serve as the leader of the free world. Mike Huckabee gets to play lots of guitar.

Last week’s Ames straw poll made news, as it often does, because two candidates - Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul - exceeded expectations, while others fell short. After finishing a distant third, Tim Pawlenty abruptly quit the race.

The straw poll should be noteworthy for being a silly and meaningless event. News feeds usually lead with the latest deep-fried-food fad, while past winners include the campaign juggernauts of Pat Robertson and Phil Gramm.

Even to those who are familiar with the event, the most recent incarnations have been unseemly. The organizers appear primarily focused upon taking advantage of Iowa’s early caucus status to raise money for the Republican Party apparatus. Despite the sophistication of today’s campaigns, the exorbitant cost for staging, tents, and tickets is difficult to justify. Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney stayed away entirely.

Responsibility for the poll getting out of hand falls partly on the party leaders in Iowa. Their quest for money and willingness to exploit what began as a modest, informal event tarnishes the reputation of the entire state. Their goal of maximizing revenues knows no bounds: venues closest to the entrance are auctioned off to the highest bidder. This year Ron Paul gave us a peek at his liberal side, shelling out over $30,000 for the pole position.

The media’s penchant for emphasizing extremes adds fuel to the fire. The coverage drives up attendance and creates an inflated perception of the event’s importance. Organizers don’t seem to mind that so much reporting seems designed to mock the set-up, the pandering, and the outlandish display. Ames has become the political equivalent of Lady Gaga - “I don’t care what you think - just pay attention to me, please!’’

But most of the blame should rest with the candidates themselves. They choose to participate, despite the fact that it’s difficult to show any correlation between performance in the straw poll and performance at the caucuses. Patronizing silly political events only inflates the stature of the silly political event, whether it involves wearing foolish hats, paying straw poll attendees, or - perish the thought - dancing in public.

In this regard, Pawlenty got what he deserved. As much as any media outlet or campaign pundit, he set high expectations for the poll. As a successful governor from a purple state, he should have been a competitive candidate, at least through the early primaries of New Hampshire and South Carolina. Unfortunately, he mistakenly thought that with the poll in his backyard, it would be easy to produce a big performance. But the average straw poll participant is far from the average voter. In Ames, a narrow but fanatic base can produce a great outcome. Just ask Ron Paul, who nearly won despite distributing far fewer tickets than Bachmann.

The candidates who managed expectations effectively get to move on. Credit Rick Perry here - he announced his candidacy the day of the poll, saving himself the money, the aggravation, and perhaps some embarrassment.

New Hampshire hasn’t gone down the Ames road, nor should it. Sure, there are a few local straw polls, but nothing sanctioned by the state party. Primaries should be about personal interaction, issues, and demonstrating a broad appeal, not distributing $30 barbeque tickets. Ironically, Pawlenty had a far better chance of exceeding expectations in New Hampshire. He’d still be in the race if, like Romney and Huntsman, he had just said, “I’m not wasting my money in Ames.’’

John E. Sununu, a regular Globe contributor, is a former US senator from New Hampshire.