The Nothingness of the Iowa Straw Poll

by Stuart Rothenberg August 12, 2011 · 9:01 AM EDT

Last week, I canceled my room reservation for the week of the Iowa straw poll. I am not going to Ames.

With Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman not participating in what is already an event of dubious predictive value, the Ames event became little more than an opportunity to consume large amounts of beef, gossip and alcohol with my fellow journalists.

Not that I’m at all opposed to beef, gossip and alcohol, whether with my colleagues or even with people I’ve never met. But that wasn’t enough of an incentive to schlep halfway across the country to cover something that is close to being irrelevant.

The odds that the eventual winner of the Iowa straw poll will be the GOP nominee next year are quite small (though not zero). And any event where Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) can finish in the top three probably doesn’t measure anything that needs to be measured in a presidential race.

Of course, for some, there are reasons to cover the event.

Some reporters have to “feed the beast,” providing news and analysis to fill column inches or otherwise dead air. And it’s fun to go to the state fair and follow a politician around, taking a free moment to look for the biggest hog or consume some non-nutritional snack.

To real political junkies, any political event is exciting and worth watching and dissecting, regardless of whether it is particularly important. (Yes, I’ll admit that I was excited Tuesday night when the Wisconsin recall election results were coming in.) And for those of us who speak about politics, the week of the straw poll can provide an endless number of anecdotes to entertain.

But it is very hard to make the case that this year’s poll is a crucial test in the race to select the Republican nominee for president.

Sure, certain outcomes could affect Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, both of Minnesota. If Pawlenty finishes first, beating Bachmann, it would boost his stock, at least temporarily, damaging the Congresswoman’s buzz. And if he finishes way back in the pack, it would likely doom his candidacy.

A poor result in the straw poll could well lead a candidate to drop out. But, really now, would a candidate who does so poorly in Ames that he drops out have had much of a chance anyway?

Again, given who isn’t participating in the straw poll — as well as the artificial nature of the event itself — it’s difficult to take Saturday’s results all that seriously.

All of that won’t stop the cable TV networks from nonstop coverage before, during and after the results are announced Saturday, and you are likely to hear more predictions and analysis than you’ll ever need about the event on TV and in print. Just remember that most of it is likely to exaggerate its importance.

So this year, I’ll have to rely on my memories of the “Last Supper” made out of butter, Lamar Alexander (now a Republican Senator from Tennessee) roaming around the Iowa State Fair looking for somebody — anybody — to talk to, and steak, alcohol and plenty of gossip with other journalists at 801 Grand in Des Moines.

But I won’t be missing anything important in the long march to the Republican presidential nomination.