Ever since its inception, the Iowa Straw Poll has had its detractors. For years, members of the media have spoken out against the event. More recently, the presidential candidates themselves have shied away from the event. John McCain skipped it in 1999 and 2007, and Rudy Giuliani skipped the event in 2007.
Because of McCain and Giuliani’s decision to skip the 2007 Straw Poll, the event almost didn’t happen. Even though the show went on, many in the media believed that the event had lost its luster because of the high profile absences.
Not only did the 2007 Straw Poll help raise the Republican Party of Iowa over $1.1 million, it once again proved to be a critical point in the nominating process as it significantly winnowed the field of candidates. Mitt Romney earned a convincing win that day, but the most important development that occurred in Ames was the revelation that Mike Huckabee had real grassroots support, and thus a real chance at winning the Iowa caucuses.
In the days, weeks, and months that followed the Straw Poll, Tommy Thompson, Sam Brownback, and Tom Tancredo all ended their campaigns, long before the caucuses were scheduled to take place. While some tried to hang on as long as they could, they could never overcome the disappointing results at the Straw Poll.
David Yepsen, the Des Moines Register’s former political columnist, has always been a critic of the event. Yepsen often wrote that it isn’t fair that Iowa gets two bites at the apple. He argued that the Straw Poll was treated just like a primary itself, thus giving Iowans too much say in the process.
On one hand, Yepsen is correct. Since the Straw Poll has always forced candidates who disappointed out of the race, it is fair to say that Iowa gets two bites at the apple. Yet, candidates keep putting it all on the line in Ames each election cycle. Are these candidates foolish? Or does their participation in the event signify an understanding that they know they must distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack if they really want to succeed?
On one hand you can understand why a campaign wouldn’t want to participate in an event that could end their campaign. There are a lot of campaigns that have ended in Hilton Coliseum. But, instead of looking at the trouble a bad performance in Ames would likely bring, the candidates who participate do so because the risk is worth the reward.
If there wasn’t a Straw Poll in 2007, it’s possible that Mike Huckabee might not have even been in the race when the caucuses rolled around the following January. As we all know, Huckabee received a huge boost from his second place finish at the straw poll, and he went on to win the caucuses. While everyone focuses on the number of votes a candidate receives, what’s really important is that the field of candidates is drastically reduced.
It’s also safe to say that, had the field of candidate not been winnowed, Mike Huckabee probably wouldn’t have won the caucuses because candidates like Tommy Thompson, Brownback and Tancredo would have carved out a sizable portion of the social conservative voting block that Huckabee basically had to himself on caucus night.
What’s interesting is that the candidate who got the most out of participating in the event almost didn’t even attend.
In his book, “Do the Right Thing,” Huckabee gives us a very clear picture of the decision his campaign made in regards to the Straw Poll. Huckabee writes on page 100, “I thought maybe we should pull out of the Iowa straw poll. Bob [Vander Plaats] and Eric [Woolson], both of whom had favored staying in I found out later, reconsidered their positions as I laid out the doomsday scenario that if we didn’t do above expectations, we were finished and the campaign was over.”
Huckabee then adds, “We didn’t have much to even put on the line except the sheer audacity of simply being there. Bob went from ‘go’ to ‘no’ and Eric said he could see it either way, but Chip [Saltsman, his national campaign manager] dug in his heels.”
After witnessing first hand how valuable the Straw Poll was to Huckabee’s campaign, it was shocking to see Vander Plaats advise Huckabee to skip the event if he runs again in 2012, especially since Vander Plaats now knows firsthand how a crowded field can hurt one’s chances at the ballot box.
After the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary, Vander Plaats vilified Rod Roberts for staying in the race even though he believed Roberts had no shot at winning the nomination. While I disagree with Vander Plaats’ assertion that Roberts stayed in the race just to play the role of the spoiler, Vander Plaats needed the primary to be a two-man race to be successful. Without an event like the straw poll, or even consistent polling by news organization, there was never a reason for Roberts to drop out. The same thing would happen in the caucuses if an event like the Straw Poll were not there to winnow the field.
Other detractors point to the fact that the Straw Poll is merely a fundraiser for the Republican Party of Iowa. Since the Straw Poll is non-binding, meaning that it plays no part in the selection of Iowa’s delegates to the National Convention, these people believe that the event is not significant, and thus not worth the effort to participating.
The major flaw in that argument is that even the caucuses themselves are not binding. Delegates to the national convention are not selected until the state convention. While the slate of delegates typically reflects the results of the caucuses, most of the time, delegates make a vow to support the nominee at the national convention.
The other reason why the Straw Poll is an important part of the Republican caucuses in Iowa is because it forces campaigns to organize at the grassroots level. Iowa and New Hampshire remain the first caucus and primary because these two small states give every candidate an opportunity to win. That wouldn’t happen in large states that have lots of expensive media markets.
If the nomination process began in large states like Ohio, California, New York, Texas, or Florida, the entire race would be about how much money a candidate would be able to raise. While Iowa and New Hampshire provide all campaigns a chance to take root, it is really the Iowa Straw Poll that will allows a grassroots candidate to emerge from a crowded field and have a real shot at the nomination.
Last week, a national reporter asked me an interesting question. He wanted to know what was the most important room in Iowa, the place where every Republican contender who wants to win the caucuses will have to pass through. At first I laughed at the question. Then I realized that room he wanted to know about seats 15,000 people – Hilton Coliseum.
Whether or not you are a fan of the Iowa Straw Poll, you have to admit that the event has been an excellent indicator of who will do well in the caucuses. In 2007, Romney and Huckabee took first and second place at the straw poll, and those two candidates took the top two spots in the 2008 caucuses.
The same was true in 2000, where George W. Bush and Steve Forbes took the top two spots in the Straw Poll and caucuses. The winner of the Straw Poll in 1996, Bob Dole, went on to win the caucuses. That year, Phil Gramm tied Dole at the Straw Poll, which was a disappointment for his campaign, and he later had to withdraw from the race. Pat Buchanan, who finished third in the Straw Poll that year, finished second in the caucuses. That pattern held true in 1988 as well, when Pat Robertson and Dole finished first and second in both the Straw Poll and caucuses.
In addition to narrowing the field of candidates, the Straw Poll also lets Iowans know who is really serious about earning their vote. Participating in the event sends a signal to Iowans that the campaign is taking them seriously. Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson didn’t participate in the event, and both struggled in Iowa.
Time will tell what the next Straw Poll will look like. However, history tells us that the candidates who participate and do well will be rewarded. If a candidate is serious about winning the caucuses, he or she had better be planning to spend a hot summer day in Ames on the second Saturday of August.
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