Ballot Box

Iowa straw poll on death watch?

Greg Nash

The Iowa straw poll deathwatch is underway.

Political watchers in the Hawkeye State say the controversial event, which has served as the traditional starting point for the GOP presidential campaign, has suffered significant blows to its credibility and is at risk of collapsing.

{mosads}“The straw poll is toast,” said Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University. “The brand is dead.”

The event, which has been a big moneymaker for the state party, has been criticized for years, chiefly for two reasons: the cost of full participation for candidates has been prohibitive, and the results have tended to push forward  long-shots with no real chance of winning the GOP nomination.

The state party has sought to address some of these issues, moving the event from Ames to a smaller venue in Boone, and no longer requiring candidates to pay enormous sums for prime positions and food for attendees. 

But some in the state say the party hasn’t adequately addressed the political risks candidates take by participating in a poll that has only picked the eventual Republican nominee twice in several decades of existence. 

In 2011, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) spent about $1 million at the event on his way to a third place finish. He bowed out of the race the next day, while then-Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) won the poll before flaming out in the caucuses. 

“The mistake the Iowa Republican Party made is that they haven’t done anything to entice frontrunners to show them how they could benefit from this,” said former Iowa Republican Party political director Craig Robinson, who in 2007 served as the liaison between the straw poll and the campaigns.

That criticism has played out publicly over the last couple of weeks as two top-tier candidates said they’d take a pass on the event.

Jeb Bush will spend the second weekend in August in Georgia, along with five other declared or potential candidates, at a gathering hosted by conservative blogger and Red State founder Erick Erickson.

And on Thursday, GOP presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee said he too would skip the event, taking to the pages of the state’s most influential newspaper to trash the proceedings.

“I have concluded this year’s Iowa straw poll will serve only to weaken conservative candidates and further empower the Washington ruling class and their hand-picked candidates,” Huckabee wrote in the Des Moines Register.

Huckabee’s words were particularly powerful considering he finished second at the event in 2007 on his way to winning the caucuses. (The straw poll was won that year by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a somewhat incongruous result for an event that is widely perceived for favor “red-meat” conservatives.)

Despite the high-profile withdrawals, some Republicans in the state believe that reports of the straw poll’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

“It’s way too early to administer last rites to the Iowa straw poll,” said former Iowa GOP chairman Matt Strawn. “There’s still no other gathering in Iowa or any early states where candidates will have the opportunity to get in front of upwards of 15,000 or 20,000 of the most active Republicans in the state. There’s clear value there.”

Strawn argued that there’s a breakout opportunity for one or more of the huge field of GOP contenders at the poll, especially those who may be excluded from the debates. 

He also argued that there’s risk inherent in skipping, particularly for Huckabee, who faces competition from a handful of candidates who will be fighting for the votes of social conservatives and evangelical Christians who attend the event in big numbers.

“In 2007, [Huckabee] used the straw poll to become the movement conservative and effectively knocked out his competition,” Strawn said. “This year, someone else could be catapulted into that role.”

But for that to happen, the poll will need to land some firm commitments.

The Hill reached out to all of the declared candidates, and so far only two – Ben Carson and Donald Trump – have said they intend to participate.

Representatives for Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz said they’re still undecided, while a spokesperson for Carly Fiorina, who would appear to be almost an archetype of the kind of candidate that could benefit from a strong showing in the poll, was noncommittal. Sen. Marco Rubio’s campaign didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

“They need at least six candidates, because it’s not going to work with just two or three,” said Robinson. “And they really need to get Scott Walker. He’s at the top of the polls in Iowa and nationally. If they can get him to commit, a lot of things will fall into place, and some of the other candidates might worry that they’ll be damaged by skipping.”

A spokesperson for Walker’s political team said they’ll make that decision if the governor decides to run for president, as he’s expected to do some time in June.

Strawn said the state party just started reaching out to candidates about the logistics of the event, and he expects some big-name conservative groups will get on board, giving added incentive for candidates to attend.

Beyond the long-standing controversies, the poll has struggled to stay relevant among increased competition from other events in recent years.

This year alone, Iowa Republicans and presidential contenders have already gathered for Rep. Steve King’s Freedom Summit, the first-ever Ag Summit, and the Faith and Freedom Coalition Summit. In June, seven candidates will be attending Sen. Joni Ernst’s first-ever “Roast and Ride” event.

There is a GOP debate on Aug. 6 this year, just days before the straw poll, and the Red State gathering, which is going on the same weekend in Georgia, has generated considerable buzz, with Walker, Bush, Rubio, and Fiorina already confirmed, as well as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. 

“You’re getting too many events before the caucuses and the straw poll is just one more, and it’s really become a nuisance,” said Schmidt. “I used to be a supporter, but it’s clear now that it’s become a disruption.”

Tags 2016 presidential election Iowa Iowa straw poll Jeb Bush Mike Huckabee Republican Party Scott Walker
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