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April 25th, 2012

Save The Caucus Series: End the Ames Straw Poll

Tomorrow, members of the Republican Party of Iowa’s Caucus Review Committee will meet in Ankeny to begin the process of reviewing caucus procedures and suggesting any necessary changes that can improve the presidential caucuses.  The 17-member committee has been divided into three subcommittees that cover public information, operations and tabulation, and training.

The Caucus Review Committee is something that I support.  In fact it would be wise to review caucus procedures following every caucus, not just one that experienced some problems.  Now that we have a better understanding of how the committee is set up, it’s easier to comprehend what it intends to accomplish.

I have no doubt that the committee will be able to find solutions to the problems that existed in the last caucus, but missing forms, communication break-downs, and ill prepared volunteers are not what will cost Iowa its privileged status.  In fact, the current Republican State Central Committee should have had the foresight to prevent many of the communication errors or training problems.  Had those involved with the committee been more pro-active, maybe some of the mistakes could have been prevented in the first place.

The one area in which the committee could have an impact is the subcommittee on operations and tabulation.  If there is one area that must be improved, it’s being able to produce a quick and accurate result on caucus night.  It is also an area that deserves a permanent committee so that it can stay up-to-date on the latest innovations, technology, and products.  The death of the Blackberry shows just how much technology can change in just four years.  Suggestions made in April 2012 may be obsolete in 2016.

It is also important to realize that no matter what transpired on caucus night, the Iowa Caucuses were going to come under scrutiny.  It happens in every presidential cycle, but especially those where Iowans don’t select the eventual nominee as the winner.  The Caucus Review Committee fails to address any of the traditional criticisms that the caucuses often receive.

To be quite honest, other states, future candidates, and members of the Republican National Committee don’t care what system is in place to collect all the “E” forms from every precinct.  They don’t care what they plan is to broadcast the results either.  They need to be convinced that Iowa deserves and is worthy of its privileged status in the presidential nominating calendar.

Over the next few days, I will offer a few suggestions that could help Iowa Republicans make a strong argument for why they deserve to maintain their First-in-the-Nation status.  While there are a number of changes and procedures that could be implemented to improve how the caucuses function, the most important thing that Iowa Republicans could do right now is show the RNC that they are willing to make major changes in an effort to prove to other states just how seriously we take our privileged status.  I believe that the best place to begin is to call for the elimination of the Iowa Straw Poll.  Doing so would instantly make Iowa more hospitable to all types and candidates and campaign strategies.

Why the Iowa GOP should end the Ames Straw Poll

The Ames Straw Poll has been an amazing event for the Republican Party of Iowa.  The opportunity to organize the event is one of the main reasons why I wanted to be the Political Director of the Iowa GOP in 2007.  The event not only raises a lot of money for the state party, but it also draws an immense amount of media coverage. All of that attention highlights our First-in-the-Nation status and forces candidates to commit to campaigning in Iowa early.

On the down side, while the event raises a lot of money, it also costs a lot to produce.  The event requires party officials to commit to spending a lot of money reserving the buildings and grounds of the Iowa State Center long before any candidate has committed to participate in the event.  That means the party is at risk of losing money if the candidates don’t agree to participate in the event.

One of the biggest negative aspects of the event is that other states view it as giving Iowa two bites at the apple since the news media covers the event much like it covers any other presidential primary contest.  While this is the common argument that many Iowa detractors latch on to, there are other reasons why it’s time to end the event beyond that it has a history of being over-hyped and acting like a primary itself.

First and foremost, the straw poll puts the Iowa GOP at odds with candidates that enter the race late.  It’s in the state’s best interest to have as many as the candidates as possible campaign here, but the presence of the straw poll in August creates a huge obstacle for late entrants.

In the last two presidential cycles, candidates have waited to announce their candidacies to avoid having to do well at the straw poll.  Both Fred Thompson and Rick Perry spent a lot of time campaigning in Iowa, but the presence of the Straw Poll undoubtedly hindered their campaigns.  Eliminating the straw poll makes the state more hospitable to all candidates, which is a good thing.

The event also serves as a distraction to party staff who should be more focused on the caucuses than a fundraising event.  A massive amount of staff hours are devoted to organizing and planning the straw poll.  In fact, the Republican Party of Iowa spends more money putting on the Straw Poll than it spends conducting the caucuses.  With the uncertainty in the nominating calendar becoming the norm along with early January caucuses, Iowa GOP staff can’t afford to spend seven months organizing the straw poll and only four months planning the caucuses.

With presidential debates becoming more and more prominent, the cost and effort to pull off a straw poll is no longer necessary.  This is not to say that the Republican Party of Iowa should not continue to have major fundraisers during a presidential caucus year, but it just shouldn’t be a straw poll.

Ending the straw poll would send a signal to all the Iowa detractors that we are serious about maintaining our First-in-the-Nation status.  While the party will have to find other ways to raise substantial amounts of money in a presidential cycle, we are better off in the long run to focus on what really matters, and that is the caucuses themselves.

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About the Author

Craig Robinson
Craig Robinson serves as the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Prior to founding Iowa's largest conservative news site, Robinson served as the Political Director of the Republican Party of Iowa during the 2008 Iowa Caucuses. In that capacity, Robinson planned and organized the largest political event in 2007, the Iowa Straw Poll, in Ames, Iowa. Robinson also organized the 2008 Republican caucuses in Iowa, and was later dispatched to Nevada to help with the caucuses there. Robinson cut his teeth in Iowa politics during the 2000 caucus campaign of businessman Steve Forbes and has been involved with most major campaigns in the state since then. His extensive political background and rolodex give him a unique perspective from which to monitor the political pulse of Iowa.

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