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Ending Iowa straw poll a good first step toward reform

Iowa’s governor has come up with a decent idea: Scrap the quadrennial straw poll that means virtually nothing but soaks up time, dollars and attention as candidates seek a fast start in the presidential sweepstakes.

Here’s how valuable it was last year: Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota won the poll of Republican candidates. When so much energy is devoted to producing a winner who cannot possibly win a national election – or even a party nominating contest – something is wrong.

Iowa should seriously consider the push by Gov. Terry Branstad, including its flip side, which is the possibility that the end of the straw poll could make it harder for poorly financed candidates to attract attention. While it’s not a slam-dunk, the evidence is stacked against the straw poll.

But Iowa’s make-believe contest is hardly the most pressing problem for Republicans or Democrats as the nation absorbs the lessons of the late, unlamented campaign season. Of greater significance are the problems of states whose late appearance in the roster of ever-earlier primary voting renders their voters irrelevant to what is a critical process. New York Republicans felt that pain earlier this year.

By the time the New York primary rolled around this year, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney had already sewn up the Republican nomination. As it happened, that probably suited New York’s mainly centrist Republicans just fine, since the other candidates were staking out the fringe territories of the right (Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum) or were simply unelectable (former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, restaurant magnate Herman Cain).

But what if that weren’t the case? What if Perry or Bachmann or Santorum had somehow managed to lock up the nomination before New York voters ever had a chance to express their choice for a nominee? Shouldn’t one of the nation’s most populous states have a chance to influence the nomination process?

Of course it should. That’s why some reforms are in order. One of the most intriguing is to hold a series of regional primaries allowing several states with some kind of ideological affinity to vote on a single day – say, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and all of New England. The regional order could be shuffled every four years to prevent any combination of them from continually dominating the process.

The problem is that these are party and state affairs, not national ones. After the meaningless straw poll, Iowa has its caucuses to kick off election-year events. It likes being first, just as New Hampshire likes being the first primary state. Meanwhile, the parties themselves don’t organize their calendars to benefit voters and the nation; they want to do what is strategically best for their prospects of winning the prize come November.

Still, the current system isn’t anything that anyone would have designed from scratch. It represents a coincidence of accidents that badly needs to be scrapped in favor of something more representative of all the states. There is time now to get that done before New York and other states may once again be asked to cast pointless votes in an expensive election.