By Craig Robinson
The Harkin Institute of Public Policy at Iowa State University hosted discussion on the future of the Iowa Caucuses on Monday night in Ames. Former Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen, who now leads the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, moderated the event. The panel consisted of Terry Nelson, a Republican strategist, and JoDee Winterhof, a Democrat strategist. Both Nelson and Winterhof are native Iowans who have worked at the highest levels of presidential campaigns.
The forum continued the postmortem following the 2012 campaign where Republicans are scrutinizing everything from the nominating process to Romney’s failed get-out-the-vote database. Iowa’s role in the nominating process has also been examined, especially the role that the Iowa Straw Poll plays in the Republican nomination process. The Straw Poll, along with a more general discussion of the caucuses, was front and center in Ames last night.
This coming February will mark the four-year anniversary of Yepsen’s departure from the Register. While Iowans can longer read what’s on his mind twice a week, Yepsen’s passion for everything involving the Iowa caucuses is still intact. As one would expect, he wasn’t bashful in making suggestions that he believes would make the Iowa Caucuses stronger.
As he did when he was with the Register, Yepsen advocated against the Republican Party of Iowa’s Straw Poll because it gave the state, “two-bites” of the apple. Yepsen also suggested that since bolstering the creditability of the caucuses is in the best interest of the state, maybe county auditors should be used to validate and communicate the precinct results. To make this a possibility, the state legislature would have to appropriate a couple of million of dollars to pay for it. Holding the caucuses on a Saturday evening and having the national parties create standards for caucus states were also ideas that Yepsen shared on Monday night.
Nelson and Winterhof were equally interesting. When asked about how both political parties could improve the caucuses, Winterhof repeatedly made the point that both Republicans and Democrats need put necessary financial resources into the caucuses to insure that the results and outcome are fast and accurate.
Nelson warned that the Republican Party of Iowa will need to take steps to legitimize the vote counting process following the 2012 caucus fiasco that saw Mitt Romney be declared the winner, when the certified vote proved that Rick Santorum had actually won the caucuses. Nelson believes that the inability of the Republican Party to declare Santorum the winner of the caucuses hurt Santorum more than it helped Romney.
For the last two weeks the media has often discussed how the Iowa Straw Poll “prematurely ended” Tim Pawlenty’s campaign. Since Nelson was a senior adviser to the Pawlenty campaign, TheIowaRepublican.com asked him how the campaign would have been different had the 2011 Straw Poll not occurred.
To the surprise of many, Nelson said, “I’m not necessarily in the camp that says we should get rid of the Straw Poll.” Instead of blaming the event for Pawlenty’s demise like many in the media have done, Nelson admitted that the campaign was to blame for they type of campaign that they ran, which required a victory in Ames. He later credited Bachmann’s Ames victory as a result of the momentum she gained by being the flavor of the month, not because of having an outstanding organization.
The forum was fascinating on a number of levels. Even though Republican activists are not big fans of the Harkin Institute, the event was well produced and focused more on Republican caucuses than the Democrat caucuses. That is obviously a result of the fact that the state just concluded a contested Republican caucus, while the Democrat caucuses were far less interesting due to President Obama seeking re-election.
I was also surprised that the man who pulled into the parking garage in front of me with his Obama and Leonard Boswell bumper stickers on the back of his car would be the guy who would ask the panel the question about how Rick Santorum essentially got cheated out of his Iowa victory. Even someone who was obviously not a Santorum supporter was upset by the unfairness of the situation.
For me, the most interesting part of the night had nothing to do with the forum itself, but instead, it had to do with who didn’t bother to show up. Absent were all three members of the Republican National Committee from Iowa. Iowa GOP Chairman A.J. Spiker, who lives in Ames, National Committeewoman Tamara Scott, and National Committeeman Steve Scheffler didn’t attend the event.
It’s a shame because attending events like this allows GOP leaders to hear additional perspectives regarding the caucuses. One thing that continues to haunt the GOP is that they seem to conduct business inside an echo chamber. From the state party perspective, the discussion regarding the caucuses has been limited to state central committee members and Republican activists. The Iowa Caucuses are bigger than that, and steps should be taken to gather as much information as possible from as many sources as possible.
A couple prominent Republicans did attend the forum. Republican Party of Iowa Co-Chairman Bill Schickel was in attendance, as was former Republican National Committeeman Steve Roberts. Schickel led the Iowa GOP’s Caucus Review Committee, but the Republican State Central Committee has failed to act on any of the recommendations that the committee proposed 161 days ago.
Preserving Iowa’s First-in-the-Nation status is serious business. It’s something that requires constant vigilance. In the larger scheme of things, missing a forum on the future of the caucuses seems insignificant, but if you are charged with the task of protecting the caucuses like Spiker, Scott, and Scheffler are, what else is happening on a Monday night in December that is more important? Even if one doesn’t agree with Yepsen, Nelson, and Winterhof, their involvement and knowledge of campaigns and the caucuses deserves a couple hours of their time, if not their thoughtful consideration.
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