The announcement that the 2015 Iowa Straw Poll would be held at the Central Iowa Expo in Boone caught quite a few people by surprise. In fact, no one on the Straw Poll Committee initially expected the rural location to emerge as the best site for the first presidential test of the 2016 cycle.
“I can tell you that going into the process, I don’t believe Boone was anybody’s first choice,” said Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann. “It emerged from the process after seeing all the positives and negatives of all the sites.”
Kaufmann was part of a seven-person committee chosen to tour all the sites and make a recommendation to the Iowa GOP’s full State Central Committee. The consensus favorite was Boone.
One major factor was cost. Iowa State University’s asking price of almost $300,000 four years ago was higher than what the state party wanted to pay this year. So they opened up the process to allow other Central Iowa sites to bid on hosting the event. In the end, the Boone location won out over Iowa State, Drake University and the Iowa Speedway in Newton.
“The trajectory we were on with Ames was just not sustainable,” Kaufmann said. “Cost was certainly a factor. There were two sites in a category of a higher price and then there were two that were in a lower category. The Boone price made it much more manageable to look at.”
The lower cost for the Boone site will allow RPI to perhaps offer lower ticket prices, which both attendees and presidential campaigns will appreciate. Tickets cost $30 to attend the 2011 Straw Poll in Ames. There were other factors.
“We wanted to pick the one that’s going to put the Party in the best light, our candidates in the best light and with our First-in-the-Nation Caucus status, those are all important. So, adding those all up, it was the Boone venue,” said RNC National Committeeman Steve Scheffler.
The committee was struck by the rural setting of the Central Iowa Expo. Returning to Ames would have been the safe choice. Moving the event to the Iowa Speedway would have been perhaps the most unique one. However, the distinct Iowaness of the Boone location offset all the positive aspects of the other sites.
“We want to have the best Iowa Straw Poll ever,” said RPI Co-Chair Cody Hoefert. “We made the decision with that in mind. It needs to be new, it needs to be fresh, it needs to be different and it needs to be Iowa. Well, it didn’t take very long for us to look at the site of the Farm Progress Show. This site is Iowa.”
“I voted for the Boone site because the wide open space is like a blank canvas,” added Straw Poll Committee member Chelle Adkins. “We have the room to shape and mold the Straw Poll into something uniquely Iowan. The corn in the background, the train and the surrounding farms gives us the chance to show the country why we are proud to be Iowans. I also like the opportunity to try new things and I think this site is a good start.”
The Boone location will give the Straw Poll are more centralized and easier-to-navigate feel. Chairman Kaufmann said accessibility for elderly and disabled folks will be one of their main focal points.
In previous Straw Polls, presidential candidates stated their case to voters with speeches inside Hilton Coliseum. Replacing the basketball arena will be an enormous tent, perhaps the size of a football field, that can hold 5,000-7,000 people.
For those folks concerned about the Central Iowa Expo’s infrastructure, there is substantial parking space, paved roads and three air-conditioned buildings already on site. One building will house the voting, another will be for the media and another building with air conditioning will be reserved for medical issues and emergencies.
The Republican Party of Iowa has now placed a great deal of pressure on itself to stage this event. Media from around the world will descend on the state to cover the end event and the eyes of the nation will be turned to Boone. Returning to Iowa State, where the layout is already established, would have been easier. That does not necessarily mean it would be better.
“We have an opportunity here to educate the rest of the country about Iowa and what’s beautiful and tranquil about this state,” Chairman Kaufmann said.
RPI is receiving some unexpected assistance from Senator Joni Ernst’s PAC. The Straw Poll Committee had already decided on the Boone location when Ernst announced this week that her first annual Roast & Ride event will also take place at the Central Iowa Expo.
Ernst’s event on June 6 will allow RPI the opportunity to view a somewhat similar, full-scale event two months prior to theirs. The 2015 Iowa Straw Poll will take place on August 8.
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