The Ames Straw Poll has always faced a long list of detractors from outside the state of Iowa. More recently, political operatives and pundits within the state say the event needs a retooling, primarily to help preserve the Iowa Caucus. Governor Terry Branstad is more blunt. He believes the Ames Straw Poll should be discontinued altogether.
“I think the straw poll has outlived its usefulness,” Branstad told the Wall Street Journal. “It has been a great fundraiser for the party but I think its days are over.”
His remarks drew a swift rebuke from Republican Party of Iowa Chairman A.J. Spiker, who the Journal described as being “peeved” over Branstad’s comments.
“Governor Branstad is wrong, and this is not a decision he will make anyway,” Spiker said. “It is a decision the party and the candidates will make.”
Actually, it ‘s probably not a decision Spiker will make either. He would have to be reelected twice as RPI chairman to be involved in the decision-making process in 2015, when the next Ames Straw Poll would be held.
“Frankly, now our time is better spent redesigning our organization, recruiting and training candidates and raising money for 2014, which is the actual responsibility of the current State Central Committee, rather than waste a lot of time pontificating over what a future SCC or chairman may or may not decide to do with an event that, if held, won’t happen for another three years,” SCC member Wes Enos told TheIowaRepublican.
Enos was also a staffer for Michele Bachmann, who won the 2011 Straw Poll. That victory was the highlight of Bachmann’s campaign. She quickly sunk back into single digits in the polls, finished sixth in the Iowa Caucus and ended her campaign the next day. Bachmann’s quick fade is part of the reason Branstad believes the quadrennial festival will end.
“You saw what happened the last time,” Branstad said. “I don’t think candidates will spend the time or money to participate in a straw poll if they don’t see any real benefit coming out of it.”
The Ames Straw Poll has infrequently aligned with voters’ choice for Iowa Caucus winner or GOP nominee. Out of its seven winners since the event’s inception in 1979, George H.W. Bush (’79), Bob Dole (’95) and George W. Bush (’99) are the only ones to also win the Iowa Caucus. (Dole and Phil Gramm tied in 1995). Dole and the younger Bush were the only ones to earn the GOP nomination and Bush is the only one to become president in that same cycle.
The presidential campaigns that participated in the Ames Straw Poll hoped the event would propel them to success in the Iowa Caucus. However, the main role the Straw Poll has played in recent years has been to trim the GOP field. Tim Pawlenty’s campaign invested all its resources into a top-two finish in the 2011 Ames Straw Poll. After placing a distant third, the former Minnesota governor dropped out the next day.
A disappointing third place finish in 2007 expedited the end of then-Kansas Senator Sam Brownback’s campaign. Tommy Thompson also exited the race following a sixth place finish. Same story for Lamar Alexander and Dan Quayle in 1999.
Another concern about the Straw Poll’s viability is the decision by candidates at the top of the polls to skip the event. The past two GOP nominees skipped Ames. After investing more than $1 million to win the event in 2007, Mitt Romney decided not to compete in the 2011 poll. 2008 GOP nominee John McCain skipped the 2007 Straw Poll, as did Rudy Giuliani, who was leading national polls at the time.
Texas Governor Rick Perry joined the GOP race on the same day as the 2011 Ames Straw Poll, but he made the announcement in South Carolina, a move that some Iowans viewed as a diss. The timing of the Straw Poll, usually held in mid-August, plays a big factor in the decision-making process of late entrants into the GOP race.
Perry, and Fred Thompson four years earlier, had not yet built an organization strong enough to compete heavily in the Ames Straw Poll. A poor finish would have seriously hampered their fledgling campaigns. That is part of the reason Perry and Thompson delayed their entrances into the race. Looking back, Governor Perry said waiting so long to get in was a tactical error.
“I didn’t get in for practice, but what I learned were some great and long-lasting lessons. One is, if you’re going to run for President of the United States, you need to get in early,” Perry told TheIowaRepublican last month. “Coming in that late in the game, we could have won, but we had to do everything perfect.”
Competing in the Ames Straw Poll is a major organizational task for campaigns. It also requires a great deal of money. Attending the event is free, but a $30 ticket is needed in order to view the speeches inside Hilton Coliseum and to vote.
All of the campaigns purchase tickets for their supporters or offer them at a greatly discounted rate. When you add in the cost to bus people in from around the state, as well as expenses to purchase a tract of land, a large tent, food and entertainment, as well as advertising in the lead-up to the event, campaigns are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars.
That large amount of money could be why Iowa GOP Chairman A.J. Spiker responded so angrily to Governor Branstad’s comments. The Ames Straw Poll is a big moneymaker for the party. Replacing that revenue would be difficult.
“I believe the Iowa Straw Poll is possibly the best way for a presidential campaign to organize (put in place county and precinct leaders & activate them) for Iowa’s First in the Nation Caucus,” Spiker said in a statement on the Iowa GOP website. “I think it is detrimental for any campaign to skip the opportunity presented in Ames and I disagree with Governor Branstad about ending our Iowa Straw Poll.”
Spiker is correct that the Straw Poll helps campaigns get organized. In fact, the event requires it. However, when 2016 GOP presidential hopefuls look back at the 2011 Ames Straw Poll, they will have plenty of evidence that the cost greatly outweighs the benefit.
Mitt Romney came within a few dozen votes of winning the 2012 Iowa Caucus despite skipping the Straw Poll. Michele Bachmann received no benefit from winning the event. Ron Paul finished a close second, but was ignored by the media in the event’s aftermath.
Tim Pawlenty might have had a shot at winning Iowa if his campaign had not invested everything into the Ames event. Every other candidate rose to the top of the polls at some point in the following months, so it stands to reason that perhaps Pawlenty would have as well, if his campaign had not sunk everything into the Straw Poll.
So, if the Ames Straw Poll does not help you win the Iowa Caucus or the GOP nomination, what is the point? As Chairman Spiker mentioned, it helps a campaign get organized. Spiker was one of the vice-chairs of Ron Paul’s campaign and they surely benefitted from the event organizationally.
The last candidate to receive a momentum boost from the Ames Straw Poll was Mike Huckabee, who placed second in 2007. That showed he was the choice of the evangelical community and they eventually coalesced behind the former Arkansas governor, boosting him to a 2008 Iowa Caucus victory.
“The main goal of the straw poll should be to organize your supporters,” said Bob Haus, who has played a prominent role in four presidential campaigns. “Candidates like President Bush and others have used the event as a key organizational ‘shakedown cruise’ for their overall caucus efforts. Coming on the heels of an election where we got out-hustled and out-organized, I don’t think we should be taking organizational events off the table. We should be perfecting them.”
Other states have long bemoaned the Ames Straw Poll, saying that combined with the Iowa Caucus, it gives the state the first two “bites of the apple”. Those that would like to jump ahead of Iowa in the presidential nominating process can and will use the Ames Straw Poll as a wedge to try to strip Iowa of its First-in-the-Nation status.
“I think the RPI needs to do everything it can to preserve Iowa’s First-in-the-Nation status,” SCC member and 2007-08 Romney staffer Tim Moran said. “Everything besides the caucus should be on the table for discussion, whether it’s reformatting the Straw Poll or ending it altogether.”
“I don’t know what the right answer is,” said Iowa GOP National Committeeman Steve Scheffler. “But I believe that there is validity to the Straw Poll and the SCC needs to look at innovative ways of maybe tweeking the Straw Poll so that we can schedule it again in 2015.”
TheIowaRepublican.com founder Craig Robinson, who is also the former political director for the Republican Party of Iowa, got the conversation started regarding the Ames Straw Poll’s future back in May.
“I actually think it is the candidates themselves who will determine if there is a straw poll that year, not the party,” Robinson said during an appearance on “Iowa Press” last weekend. “And I think its time has come and I think there are things that can replace it that would be similar but we can’t have something that culls the herd, so to speak, like it is now.”
TheIowaRepublican purchased tent space at the 2011 Ames Straw Poll. We provided free beverages and invited all the presidential candidates and prominent guests to speak to the crowd. Governor Branstad and Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds were among the many visitors to the TIR tent. Below is their speech:
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