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May 22nd, 2015

Cloud of Uncertainty over Iowa Straw Poll

Straw PollLike many Iowa Republicans, some of my greatest political memories are associated with the Iowa Straw Poll.

I worked my first Straw Poll at the age of 22 in 1999. It was terrifying waiting for my buses full of Steve Forbes’ supporters to arrive. My favorite story from that year isn’t the huge air-conditioned tent that was so cold that you couldn’t even stand to be in it, or the fact that the fire marshal closed Hilton Coliseum that afternoon, which also cut off voting.

My favorite memory was being told that so many Forbes supporters turned out in Burlington that they didn’t all fit in the bus that we sent there. My county chair quickly evaluated the situation and noticed that Vice President Dan Quayle’s bus didn’t look so full, so they decided to hitch a ride with them. I was glad they got to Ames, but my fear was would the Quayle bus take them home?

Another favorite memory associated with the Straw Poll happened a few months later when the Washington, Iowa, newspaper ran a story about how a group of Forbes supporters would gather once a week at a local diner all decked out in their Forbes garb they got at the Straw Poll. I didn’t know that they were so passionate, but that’s the power of the Straw Poll. It’s not only a fun day, but it can also get people excited about a campaign.

Eight years later, I would get the chance to be responsible for organizing the event. I didn’t realize at the time I signed on to be the Political Director for the Republican Party of Iowa that I wasn’t just tasked with implementing the event, I would be directly involved in convincing campaigns to participate in the Straw Poll.  From the moment I sat behind my desk, the August Straw Poll was a top priority. Sure there was other projects that demanded my attention, but the focus was always on Ames.

In 2007, we made a number of changes compared to the previous Straw Poll. A lot can change in eight years, and the biggest obstacle we had to deal with was the impact of McCain-Feingold campaign reform. Additionally, we knew going in to the caucus cycle that John McCain wasn’t the biggest fan of the caucuses, let alone the Straw Poll. Knowing all of that, we decided to open up the event to other groups like the National Rifle Association, Fair Tax, and other issue advocacy groups.

Our thinking was simple, build an event that is difficult for campaigns to say no to. In addition to these groups helping legitimize the event, we also believed that they would turn out people to attend the event. The plan worked. While McCain and Rudy Giuliani would eventually forgo the event, by the time they made their decision, the party had already had countless meetings with campaigns and organizations. In essence, the show would go on so long as we had the participation of the majority of the Republican field.

The Romney campaign would eventually come to regret their decision to participate in the event because their win wasn’t viewed as being significant, but I don’t think Romney lost the 2008 caucuses to Mike Huckabee because he played in the straw poll. The exit from Iowa of two moderate Republicans is what changed the dynamic in the state. No longer was Romney in the center of ideological spectrum in regards to the 2008 Republican field in Iowa. he suddenly found himself to the left of everyone else.

Iowa is often described as being too evangelical or too socially conservative for candidates. As someone who frequently travels the state, I’ve never gotten that sense. Just listen to the questions asked by the people who show up to listen to the candidates. They are all pretty mainstream questions. However, I do tend to think that Iowa Republicans prefer whoever is perceived to be the conservative alternative to whoever is the national frontrunner.

Romney was the conservative alternative to John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, until they bolted. Then Mike Huckabee became the conservative alternative. If you boil the 2012 caucus race down in Iowa, it was all about finding the conservative alternative to Romney, which eventually was Santorum. Today, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is the conservative alternative to Bush. He needs to be on his guard not to end up like Romney in 2008 where someone else will be the conservative alternative to him.

The reason I share all of that is because, to understand what’s currently going on with the Iowa Straw Poll, you have to understand how that event impacts the caucuses. Newton’s (Isaac not the Iowa town) law of motion is in effect here – for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. When a candidate decides to forgo the Straw Poll, it impacts more than just the event. It also impacts what other campaigns will do, as well as the overall dynamic of the caucuses themselves.

Jeb Bush’s decision to skip the Straw Poll didn’t really shake anything up. Most people expected him not to participate. The only question that remains is how engaged will he be in Iowa? Huckabee’s decision not to participate in the Straw Poll is more problematic for the event. Now you have a candidate who has won the Iowa caucuses before, and who’s entire candidacy is dependent on winning the Iowa caucuses again, and even he believes it’s in his best interest not to participate in the event.

I have long thought that the biggest obstacles for the Iowa GOP and its Straw Poll wasn’t Jeb Bush skipping, but what happens when one or both of the previous caucus winners don’t participate. Sure, you can say that it’s a sign of weakness for Huckabee, but the question that his campaign had to deal with was what do they get out of participating in it? Huckabee and Santorum have already proved that they can win the caucuses.

What opportunity does the Straw Poll present to either of them? Sure it can solidify your standing in Iowa, but it can also send you home. If Huckabee didn’t win the Straw Poll, it would be a devastating blow. That’s not the case for Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Dr. Ben Carson, and someone like Donald Trump. The reward outweighs the risks for those three candidates, as each could benefit not by winning, but by seeing a former caucus winner under perform.

There is also another dynamic at work here that didn’t exist in previous cycles. The large field of 2016 Republican candidates is making the debate stage really crowded. Both CNN and FOX News recently said that they would limit the debate stage to the top ten candidates. This is a huge development in the presidential campaigns’ poker game.

Huckabee doesn’t have to worry about getting in the debates as he routinely polls in the top five of all national and state polls. That’s not the case for Santorum, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, or Lindsey Graham. So what would help Huckabee’s strategy to win Iowa? He needs candidates like Santorum and Jindal out of the race.

Huckabee could accomplish that in two ways. One, by beating them in something like the Straw Poll, which costs lots of money and has other risks associated with it. Or two, Huckabee could slow play it, and let the debates actually clear his main rivals for the Christian conservative votes in Iowa. Huckabee is essentially taking the conservative approach by counting on the debates to winnow the large 2016 GOP field.

The next week is critical for the survival of the Straw Poll. The Republican Party of Iowa needs a big fish to commit to the event. That would be someone like Scott Walker, Rand Paul, or Ted Cruz. I assume that Marco Rubio is not a Straw Poll participant. He is just beginning to put together his Iowa staff and frankly hasn’t spent enough time in the state.

Walker is perhaps the linchpin to the Straw Poll. As a neighboring governor who is currently atop of Iowa and national polls, getting Walker to compete could entice the remaining candidates to put it all on the line in Boone. Walker could use the event to solidify his frontrunner status in Iowa and organize for the caucuses in doing so. The question for Walker is, how confident is he about his Iowa prospects?

With a large and diverse field of presidential candidates, it’s still possible to not just salvage the Straw Poll, but to make it a meaningful event. An event that includes Walker, Cruz, Paul, Trump, Perry, Santorum, Carson, and Fiorina would be as good of a Straw Poll field as we have had in recent years. The problem is that the only person who has committed to the event is Donald Trump.

Pulling off the Straw Poll is now a numbers game. The Iowa GOP needs six or seven participants to make the event work. In 2007, McCain and Giuliani were no’s, but we still had Romney, Huckabee, Ron Paul, Brownback, Tancredo, Tommy Thompson, Duncan Hunter, and John Cox. In 2012, the Straw Poll had Bachmann, Paul, Pawlenty, Santorum, Cain, and McCotter. There was also a strong write-in effort. Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Jon Huntsman did almost garner 1,000 votes between them all.

The Iowa GOP can’t stand many more candidates taking a pass on the Straw Poll. They are in desperate need of some good news.



About the Author

Craig Robinson
Craig Robinson is the founder and editor-in-chief of, a political news and commentary site he launched in March of 2009. Robinson’s political analysis is respected across party lines, which has allowed him to build a good rapport with journalist across the country. Robinson has also been featured on Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Press, ABC’s This Week, and other local television and radio programs. Campaign’s & Elections Magazine recognized Robinson as one of the top influencers of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses. A 2013 Politico article sited Robinson and as the “premier example” of Republican operatives across the country starting up their own political news sites. His website has been repeatedly praised as the best political blog in Iowa by the Washington Post, and in January of 2015, Politico included him on the list of local reporters that matter in the early presidential states. Robinson got his first taste of Iowa politics in 1999 while serving as Steve Forbes’ southeast Iowa field coordinator where he was responsible for organizing 27 Iowa counties. In 2007, Robinson served as the Political Director of the Republican Party of Iowa where he was responsible for organizing the 2007 Iowa Straw Poll and the 2008 First-in-the-Nation Iowa Caucuses. Following the caucuses, he created his own political news and commentary site, Robinson is also the President of Global Intermediate, a national mail and political communications firm with offices in West Des Moines, Iowa, and Washington, D.C. Robinson utilizes his fundraising and communications background to service Global’s growing client roster with digital and print marketing. Robinson is a native of Goose Lake, Iowa, and a 1999 graduate of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, where he earned degrees in history and political science. Robinson lives in Ankeny, Iowa, with his wife, Amanda, and son, Luke. He is an active member of the Lutheran Church of Hope.

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