The Iowa GOP May Be About To Finally Kill The Iowa Straw Poll

Iowa Republicans may be a day away from putting the Iowa Straw Poll out of its, and our, misery.

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Des Moines Register reporter Jennifer Jacobs is reporting that the Iowa Republican Party appears to be close to actually killing the Iowa Straw Poll:

 Friday could be the day the Iowa Straw Poll dies.

The governing board for the Republican Party of Iowa will revisit going forward with the event during a conference call Friday morning, as some party officials resign themselves to the view that the much-criticized party fundraiser could potentially damage Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, GOP insiders told The Des Moines Register Wednesday.

Back in January, the Iowa GOP board voted 16-0 to proceed with the straw poll, a tradition dating to 1979. It’s a daylong political festival meant to showcase the party’s presidential candidates and to bring Iowa Republicans together for food, music and field-winnowing. This year, it’s scheduled for Aug. 8 at the Central Iowa Expo near Boone.

The fresh discussion signals nervousness among state party leadership about the wisdom of spending money to organize for an event that is a regular target of criticism — and that appears on the verge of falling flat because so many presidential contenders are steering clear of it. Some candidates have said they might show up to give a speech, but won’t spend money trying to win the straw poll. That could mean the fundraiser would struggle to break even, much less garner hundreds of thousands for the party as it has in the past.

If the board does indeed kill the straw poll, it would bring to pass what Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad called for at the end of the 2012 presidential election cycle, and would end a litany of straw poll criticism that some Republicans worry is fueling a desire to diminish Iowa’s place in the presidential selection process.

Critics for years have blasted Iowa Republicans for taking “two bites of the apple”: holding tight to their prestigious role as the first state in the nation to vote in the presidential nomination contest, and also hosting the straw poll. The straw poll in past cycles has been one of the most high-profile events on the election calendar, drawing a slate of White House hopefuls and a slew of national media. But detractors say the straw poll buoys long-shot candidates with little chance of winning the GOP nomination.

Candidate participation makes or breaks the success of the straw poll, and this year’s event, scheduled for Aug. 8, suffered major blows when three major 2016 contenders — Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee and Marco Rubio — decided not to spend money to compete.

Scott Walker, the frontrunner in Iowa polling, has dodged questions about whether he’s in for the straw poll by saying he’s not an official presidential candidate yet. But Walker telegraphed disinterest by not sending aides to straw poll planning meetings, even after party officials secured a legal opinion that assured contenders who weren’t yet official candidates that they could participate in the meetings without triggering a requirement that they formally announce.

State GOP leaders, under national scrutiny for signs that the pressure they’re putting on candidates to compete in the straw poll has turned into bullying, have in recent weeks begun downplaying the straw poll. Instead, they have talked up how Iowa can’t put a price tag on its first-in-the-nation voting privileges.

Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann earlier this year was one of the chief cheerleaders for the straw poll, but last week told the Register “the straw poll is the least important of all the mechanisms that Iowa has in picking a candidate. … We start talking about the caucuses, then we’re talking about the meat and potatoes.”

On Wednesday, Kaufmann and other Iowa GOP officials declined to comment on Friday’s scheduled conference call. Multiple sources confirmed the fate of the straw poll would be discussed.

The quadrennial event has been on something of a death watch for awhile now. Four years ago, the spectacle that the event had become hit absurd levels when a Michigan Congressman who obviously had no chance to become the party’s nominee spent tens of thousands of dollars for the primary spot on the grounds of the Iowa State Fair where the event was held while the strongest candidate in the race decided to skip the event altogether. Ultimately, the polls top two vote recipients ended up being Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul, largely because their campaigns had spent huge amounts of money to buy tickets for supporters and bus them into the event to vote, while Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty ended up shutting down his campaign due to his disappointing performance. In no small part because of that criticism, the Iowa GOP decided to move the event away from Ames and the circus atmosphere of the Iowa State Fair to Boone, Iowa and to end the practice of charging campaigns for tent space. Nonetheless, the doubts about the poll remained and, in just the past several weeks Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, and Marco Rubio have all announced that they would not be participating in the event. Additionally, Scott Walker’s not-yet-a-campaign has been dodging press inquiries about its intentions regarding the poll, leading many to believe that he too would end up skipping. The prospect of at least three, and possibly all, of the four candidates currently leading in the polls in Iowa skipping the straw poll led many to begin to suggest that the poll itself was at least on life support if not dying altogether.

As I’ve said before, the end of the Iowa Straw Poll would be a good thing all around. While the caucuses themselves are an absurdly non-competitive spectacle that has far too much influence on the Presidential nomination process, the straw poll has all the characteristics of the caucuses magnified by several orders of magnitude. In addition to a largely self-selected group of participants, the fact that only people who purchase tickets are allowed to vote and that the cost of the ticket is generally almost always covered by the campaigns themselves means that the event is incredibly unrepresentative of whatever it is that Iowa Republicans might be thinking at that point in the fact. We can see evidence of that fact in the results of the poll itself going back to when it was first help in 1979. Since then, there have been six occasions on which the poll was actually competitive. Of those, the winner of the poll has won the caucuses three times, including in 1987 when eventual caucus winner Bob Dole tied in the straw poll with Texas Senator Phil Gramm. Of those three wins, the straw poll and caucus winner has only won the Republican nomination twice and only won the Presidency once. (Source) While six occurrences is admittedly a small number upon which to make a judgment, it’s large enough I think to demonstrate just how worthless the straw poll is as a predictor of sentiment in Iowa or nationally. Ending it would not deprive candidates, journalists, or voters with any valuable information at all.

Ultimately, Iowa Republicans may decide to hold the event this year anyway just because it is still likely to generate money for them. If they do though, it’s going to be an even bigger joke than it has been in the past. The best thing the Iowa GOP could do would be to put the straw poll out of its misery and save candidates, reporters, and voters from having to pay any attention at all to such an irrelevant event.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. gVOR08 says:

    save candidates, reporters, and voters from having to pay any attention at all to such an irrelevant event.

    Reporters need to fill column inches. I think they’re grateful for any content they can stenograph. Relevancy is kind of irrelevant to them.