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.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held 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 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Lit3Bolt says:

    Now if only Iowa’s Presidential Candidate Butter-Eating Contest and Corn-Dog Juggling Expo would finally be cancelled, we could achieve integrity and honesty in our politics once more!

    But the rise and fall of the Iowa Straw Poll has nothing to do with the Iowan Republican party and everything to do with bored national reporters who have nothing better to do during the August Congressional recess and Presidential vacation. That’s when you get WaPo, WSJ and Times journalists descending on Iowa like locusts and suddenly you have Maureen Dowd columns judging candidates by how much they appeared to like their corn dogs.

  2. superdestroyer says:

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to find a way to lessen the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire on the presidential primary process. Under the current progress, if the same candidate wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, they are a lock to win the nomination.

    Given all of the political trends in the U.S. and the growing dominance of the Democratic Party with the blue wall, wouldn’t it make sense to give the other 48 states more of say in who will be president rather than leaving it to caucus goers in Iowa and primary voters in New Hampshire.

  3. Ron Beasley says:

    The death of this money making circus can’t end soon enough. It has zero relevance to the nomination process but only serves to inflate the coffers of the Iowa Republican Party and inflate their egos.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @superdestroyer: There always has to be a “first” competition and they will always have an outsize influence as they will demonstrate to donors who is a “winner”.

  5. superdestroyer says:


    Then why not rotate the first through a number of states or start out with five smaller starts having their primaries at the same time. Why give the Iowa and New Hampshire legislatures the ability to control who is president by letting them maintain the political power of those two states?

    There has to be a better solution than having the winner decided sometime in Mid February 11 months before the inaugural.

  6. edmondo says:

    This is great news for George Pataki!!!!!!!!!

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:


    Then why not …

    I don’t know… Tradition? I have to say tho that I think S. Carolina is far more important for a Republican than either Iowa or N Hampshire. I also have to say that this year the early contests won’t settle anything other than who won’t be the nominee.

  8. DrDaveT says:

    Are the straw poll participants prohibited from voting for candidates who do not officially enter? It would be hilarious if the straw poll were won by a candidate who didn’t actually go to Iowa and campaign.

  9. superdestroyer says:


    If the same Republican candidate wins Iowa and New Hampshire, then the primary season is effectively over. If a candidate comes in lower than third in both Iowa and New Hampshire, the candidate is not longer relevant no matter how many millions raised by billionaires.

    Iowa and New Hampshire will not go away until the Democratic Party decided to make them go away. No candidate is in a place to try to change the situation and that is why they have such as outsized importance. However, in the coming dominant party state, it makes more sense to give the other 48 states more say in deciding who the president is rather than letting two states decided and everyone else just rubber stamps the decision.

  10. Argon says:

    Anything that reduces the influence of Steve King on national politics can’t be a bad thing.

  11. michael reynolds says:

    I’m watching Jeb on Face the Nation right now and I just noticed how really dull and uninteresting Jeb is. He seems tired and uninterested, without enthusiasm or affect. I don’t see this guy inspiring much fervent support.

  12. stonetools says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Well, I never saw what people saw in his brother, so maybe we aren’t the best judge of what inspires a conservative voter. I imagine if he says the right things, and they are endlessly repeated on Fox News, the conservative faithful will come around.

  13. grumpy realist says:

    @Ron Beasley: Nah, the whole thing got started as a way of keeping the media happy. So they can go around and interview some white corn-fed Soccer Mom (who would be just as happy if you didn’t stick that microphone in her face), interview each other, have panel discussions on ” what will the Iowa Straw Poll indicate?”, and in short, create filler for the 24-hr maw of the media.

  14. stonetools says:


    Wow, for once we are on the same page. I agree with you 100 per cent here, with revolving regional primaries being my preferred solution. Heck, I’ve even drawn up a scheme by which the country is divided into 12 regions, each with its own primary. It makes for a much more logical system, IMO, than having two or three small, unrepresentative states always pick the candidates, with California and New York not having usually having a say (except in the all important money primary.)

  15. charon says:


    I agree, I totally do not trust my ability to have a useful opinion on how charismatic or the opposite any of these guys are.

    It’s good there are some people able to judge such things though.

    Also, if the teabaggers could ultimately fall in line for RMoney, they can come around and fall in line for Bush, too.

  16. Gustopher says:

    Organizing the primaries around the swingiest of swing states would probably be better — the first few primaries and caucuses would be determined by which states were closest in the last Presidential election. And then pick the rest by drawing lots from a hat.

    And it must be a literal hat — make a presentation out of it. Who was our last president who wore hats? Is there one of his hats in a Presidential library somewhere that can be borrowed for this?

    If we could require closed primaries and caucuses that would be best from a sad irony perspective — exclude the actual swing voters from the process.

  17. Gustopher says:


    Now if only Iowa’s Presidential Candidate Butter-Eating Contest and Corn-Dog Juggling Expo would finally be cancelled,

    I wish those were actual events that candidates had to subject themselves to. Particularly the butter eating contest. Romney would have eaten the sticks of butter with a fork and knife.

  18. Tillman says:

    The ideal is the primaries/caucuses don’t take place till March of election year. They would occur five or so states at a time, a week apart, the placement and order of states decided by the FEC a month or two earlier (if it wasn’t so utterly broken).

    Hell, make each state in a round be geographically diverse. Force campaigns to use planes if they want their candidate to show up in every state up for vote. I’d preferably want this practice to be so arduous for a single person as to disqualify anyone who can’t delegate. Let’s face it: the modern presidency is one where delegation is damn important.

  19. JohnMcC says:

    @michael reynolds:Like our friend Stonetool, I agree. JEB seems to me to be the Fred Thompson of this election cycle; he’s the perfect candidate until he actually has to campaign.

  20. Dave D says:

    Living in Des Moines I agree this state has far too much influence for its own good. This is why the ethanol subsidies will never go away. I also hate that there are already billboards and commercials for contenders it is awful. TV is basically unwatchable for 4 months before any national election. All that said the influx of people and money is great for local economies and wherever there is a status quo to maintain where people make money, it usually is maintained.

  21. RGardner says:

    Back in 2008 Iowa was a Democrat free-for-all (vice today the focus is on the Rep field). Remember John Edwards wearing spandex while riding 15 miles with Lance Armstrong in RAGBRAI? [Boy could I rewrite that for better flow, ouch.]

    Agree with the ethanol subsidies comment.

    Another change from 2008 is the near universality of recording devices (smart phones) to capture any foible. It was just starting in 2004, by 2008 was noticeable, and today, everywhere. Gotcha! So better “handling” is essential.