Last week the Republican Party of Iowa announced some minor changes to the 2016 version of the illustrious Iowa Straw Poll. No candidates have publically announced that they are participating in the event, but five candidates have confirmed their attendance to the RedState Gathering in Atlanta on the same weekend.
RedState’s Erick Erickson announced this morning that Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, and Carly Fiorina have all confirmed their attendance to his event that will be held at the Intercontinental Buckhead Hotel in Atlanta from August 6th to August 9th. A candidate’s attendance to a four-day conference doesn’t necessarily mean they will not be participating in the Iowa GOP’s Straw Poll but it does raise some concerns.
The calendar of the first full week in August is also a big factor. On Thursday, August 6th the first sanctioned Republican debate will be held in Cleveland, Ohio. That means that the only candidates who could attend the RedState Gathering that day would be someone who didn’t meet the RNC’s debate criteria, which we should know more about later this week.
It would also be odd for a candidate participating in the straw poll to be out of the state the day before the event. A candidate could participate in the Straw Poll on Saturday and easily get to Atlanta on Sunday, but that wouldn’t be advisable if you happen to be the winning candidate or a candidate who didn’t meet or exceed expectations.
Think of it this way. Instead of just basking in the glow of her Straw Poll win in 2011, Michele Bachmann attended a GOP event in Waterloo the following day which was being headlined by Perry, who just had gotten into the race. It was the beginning of the end for her candidacy. Imagine if Tim Pawlenty was scheduled to speak at a function in another state following his disappointing third place finish in Ames. Do you show up and announce that you are getting out of the race like Mitt Romney did at CPAC in 2008, or do you just go home.
No matter how you slice it, the fact that Erickson already has commitments from five presidential candidates is a bit of a concern. In 2011, Rick Perry officially announced his candidacy from the RedState Gathering, which was being held in South Carolina. It’s one thing when one candidate opts to attend an event that is competing with the Republican Party of Iowa’s premier political event, but having five candidates do it would deal a blow to the Iowa GOP.
It should surprised nobody that Jeb Bush is already confirmed to be in Atlanta and not rural Boone on that weekend. Erickson actually benefits from holding a competing event with the Straw Poll because it gives candidates like Bush an easy out. The candidate that is probably the most concerning on RedState’s list is Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Walker is currently the frontrunner in Iowa, and if he opts to not participate in the Straw Poll, it will change the dynamics of the event in a substantial way. When John McCain and Rudy Giuliani skipped the Straw Poll in 2007 it was a big blow, but the event was salvageable because nobody really thought that either would win on caucus night. If Walker opts to attend an event in Atlanta, Georgia, a state that will not hold its primary on March 1st at the earliest, it could become problematic for the Iowa GOP.
Rick Perry avoided the Straw Poll before, but his approach to a potential 2016 campaign has been completely different than it was in 2011. Perry has been an early and frequent visitor to Iowa, just like Bobby Jindal and Carly Fiorina have been. While each of those three candidates wouldn’t have as much on the line at the Straw Poll as someone like Walker, their campaigns also probably are not too eager to put it all on the line in the middle of August either.
Even though the hot days of August still seem to be a long way off, the Iowa GOP will need to start getting candidates confirmed to participate in the Straw Poll. It’s a daunting task with announced candidates, let alone with someone who isn’t officially in the race yet. Thus far, Texas Senator Ted Cruz has said that he intends to participate in the Iowa GOP’s Straw Poll, but everyone else is essentially a question mark.
In the past, avoiding the Straw Poll would have made a candidate persona non grata in Iowa, but times are much different today than they were four or eight years ago. Governor Terry Branstad has said that the event has “outlived its usefulness,” and while he backs the Party’s desire to have the event, the criticism the event has received in recent years has damaged its credibility.
Personally, I think it would be a real shame if the event is either marginalized or has limited participation. While I have not published my thoughts on the changes that the Iowa GOP has made, I fear the venue change disconnects it from its storied history. The recent changes are valid moves to counter some of the criticism the event has had to deal with before, but the event the Party is trying to have this year doesn’t seem anything like the Straw Polls of the past.
As a field staffer for Steve Forbes’ 2000 campaign, I can’t say enough about how valuable of an organizational tool the Straw Poll was for me personally. Yes, we had busses coming out of our ears, free Hickory Park BBQ, and a giant air-conditioned tent that was so cold inside you could freeze hamburgers. It was a great day, but none of the people in those orange Forbes shirts were tricked into attending the event by the offer of a free bus ride or a free meal.
In 1999, the Forbes campaign used the event to test itself, to gauge the campaign’s grassroots organization. To this day, it still bothers me that we didn’t win, but the 1999 Straw Poll separated the contenders for the pretenders. The only reason a candidate should be scared of an event like the Straw Poll is because they know their campaign either isn’t organized or there isn’t enough supporters out there to organize.
While it’s too early to sound the alarm on the Straw Poll, the Iowa GOP needs to start getting candidates committed to the event instead of worrying about how the event is perceived.
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