The Slow Death Of The Iowa Straw Poll
The Iowa Straw Poll seems to be dying, and that's a good thing.
Marco Rubio has become that latest prominent Republican candidate to announce that they will not be competing in the Iowa Straw Poll coming up in August, and there are signs that other candidates are staying away as well:
Sen. Marco Rubio will not participate in the Iowa Straw Poll, his campaign team confirmed Saturday.
The Florida senator and 2016 hopeful’s decision marks the latest blow to the August event long considered a staple on the Republican road to the presidential nomination. Jeb Bush, Sen. Lindsey Graham and Mike Huckabee have all said they won’t participate this cycle. Many, including Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Ted Cruz have yet to signal if they will attend.
Alex Conant, communications director for the Rubio campaign, cited financial concerns, stating, “We are running a lean campaign, so we will only spend money on contests that award delegates.”
Runio’s announcement comes on the heels of similar announcements from the campaigns for Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee that they they too would be skipping an event that has seemingly become more of a spectacle as the years go on, as well as being one of the biggest fundraising events the Iowa Republican Party runs. Moreover, The Washington Post’s Robert Costa reported late last week that there were other signs that many campaigns were preparing to make the same decision:
When Republican officials in Iowa convened a planning session Thursday for their quadrennial presidential straw poll, only a handful of advisers to GOP contenders bothered to show up.
The sparse attendance and lack of enthusiasm, even from those who came, was worrying to state party brass: The straw poll — a carnival-like organizing ritual that has in past years winnowed the candidate field and marked the start of caucus season — has faded into irrelevance.
This August’s straw poll in Boone, in fact, may be the least consequential in decades. Some Republican hopefuls expect to participate only halfheartedly, while others — including former governors Jeb Bush (Fla.) and Mike Huckabee (Ark.) — are opting out altogether. And almost no one outside the fringes of the race believes a summertime victory would provide a meaningful jolt.
Thursday’s information-only meeting in Des Moines at state GOP headquarters illustrated the event’s descent. Representatives from seven official or soon-to-be-declared candidates dropped by, but none from the top tier.
Most telling was the absence of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s operation. Walker, who spent part of his childhood in Iowa and has built a fervent following of Christian activists and tea party conservatives, seems poised to bypass the straw poll and focus on next year’s caucuses.
The lack of interest from Huckabee and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum — the winners of Iowa’s past two Republican caucuses — has a similar debilitating effect.
Walker’s aversion is notable because his candidacy is one that could reap benefits from straw-poll success, elevating him as a donor-class darling who is also a favorite of the grass roots and sucking up the political oxygen from his underfunded rivals on the right.
But the risks for Walker and the rest are evident: Win, and you gain little other than momentum; underperform, and your campaign could be tagged as flat and inspiring. When former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty competed hard in the 2011 straw poll only to lose, he ended his campaign the next day.
“We haven’t made any commitments for anything that requires a candidate to officially declare,” Walker said this week on Laura Ingraham’s radio program, reflecting his wariness of angering Iowans but reluctance to bring a volunteer army to the Central Iowa Expo on Aug. 8 that would surely raise expectations.
Strategists for Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who has surged to the fore of the 2016 pack, also did not appear Thursday. “We’re running a lean operation, so we’re only spending money to compete in contests where delegates are at stake,” said Alex Conant, Rubio’s spokesman.
Those who attended Thursday’s meeting were allies of Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), businessman Donald Trump, former surgeon Ben Carson, former Texas governor Rick Perry, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), former Silicon Valley executive Carly Fiorina and Gov. Chris Christie (N.J.). All have blocs of support but sit near the middle or bottom of national polls
If Walker follows the lead of Bush, Huckabee, and Rubio, it would mean three of the top five candidates in the polls in Iowa would be out and the straw poll would likely be left to candidates in the middle of the pack, as well as those in the bottom tier looking to grab headlines to boost a campaign that may not survive much past the straw poll itself if they don’t perform well. In that case, though, the national media is likely to pay far less attention to the event than they have in recent years and the benefit to participating even for these marginal candidates will be greatly reduced. In that case, we could be seeing the beginning of what will become a tidal wave that will effectively mean the end of the Iowa Straw Poll. Yes, perhaps the candidates at the margins like Carly Fiorina, John Kaisch, Ben Carson, and George Pataki will participate in the event, but if you have a straw poll where only marginal candidates are participating then the poll itself is going to become even more meaningless than it already is. Furthermore, since the poll is basically nothing more than a fundraising opportunity for the Iowa Republican Party it seems unlikely that it is going to last beyond this election cycle if the entire even ends up being a bust.
If we are indeed witnessing the slow death of the Iowa Straw Poll, that can only be a good thing. Throughout its history, the poll has been completely useless in actually measuring the true level of a candidate’s support in the Hawkeye State and, especially since the first contested straw poll of the “news saturation” era in 2007, it has received far more media attention than it deserves. In the six times since 1999 that the straw poll has actually been seriously contested, the winner of the poll has gone on to win the Iowa Caucuses twice , or three times if you count 1988 when Bob Dole and Phil Gramm tied for first, and has won the Republican nomination once, or twice if you count Dole in 1988. (Source) In each of the past two election cycles, the candidate who has won the Republican nomination had actually skipped the straw poll the years before. Last time, gadfly candidates Michelle Bachmann and Ron Paul finish in the top two spots while dropped out of the race due to his disappointing performance, a development which led many Iowans, including the state’s powerful Republican Governor, to call for an end to the poll altogether. Instead of ending the event, the Iowa GOP made changes that were supposed to remove some of the more absurd elements of the event. Even with those changes, though, candidates seem to be making the choice to stay away. In doing so, they could be hastening the death of the Iowa Straw Poll, and that would be a good thing.