Will the Iowa Straw Poll Survive?

The storied event has its fans, but some Republicans believe it’s a money-grabbing exercise that’s “outlived its usefulness.”

AMES, IA - AUGUST 13: Republican presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) greets her supporters after winning the Iowa Straw Poll outside the Hilton Coliseum at Iowa State University August 13, 2011 in Ames, Iowa. Nine GOP presidential candidates competed for votes in the Iowa Straw Poll, an important step for gaining momentum in a crowded field of hopefuls. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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Aug. 9, 2014, 2 a.m.

URB­ANDALE, Iowa — Every four years, pres­id­en­tial hope­fuls flock to the Iowa State Uni­versity cam­pus in Au­gust to court a small hand­ful of Iow­ans for the stor­ied Ames straw poll. But if they got their own bal­lot, some of those can­did­ates might vote to scrap the whole ex­er­cise.

As would-be 2016 entrants head to Iowa this week and pres­id­en­tial jock­ey­ing be­gins in earn­est, Hawkeye State Re­pub­lic­ans are genu­inely un­sure about what will hap­pen to their famed event by the time next Au­gust rolls around. Most ex­pect to see big changes at the very least, and po­ten­tially no straw poll at all.

“Some people still want to see it ex­ist, but I don’t know if there’s any cam­paign that wants to see it ex­ist,” said Nick Ry­an, a former Rick San­tor­um aide who heads the Amer­ic­an Fu­ture Fund. “Hav­ing gone through a straw poll, at­ten­ded a straw poll — it’s un­for­tu­nate what it’s turned in­to.”

The straw poll, first held in 1979, has be­come a Re­pub­lic­an con­fab of epic pro­por­tions both in Iowa and on the na­tion­al stage. It’s seen as a way to test the or­gan­iz­a­tion and grass­roots sup­port each pres­id­en­tial hope­ful has amassed, as well as a help­ful bench­mark for can­did­ate per­form­ance the sum­mer be­fore vot­ing be­gins in any of­fi­cial primar­ies or caucuses. More im­port­ant, it’s a cash mag­net for the Iowa GOP.

But the cam­paigns have two primary com­plaints: First, that it’s pro­hib­it­ively ex­pens­ive for smal­ler-dol­lar can­did­ates to even com­pete in; and, second, that it of­ten re­wards too-con­ser­vat­ive can­did­ates who ul­ti­mately go on to do poorly in the caucuses six months later. So it’s be­come a re­source-drain­ing en­ter­prise that can hurt badly if you lose, but won’t ne­ces­sar­ily help if you win.

“It’s out­lived its use­ful­ness be­cause it does start tak­ing on the ap­pear­ance of just hold­ing up these can­did­ates for money and flee­cing them,” said Dav­id Kochel, a long­time Iowa GOP strategist who worked for Mitt Rom­ney the past two pres­id­en­tial cycles.

“That’s not what the caucuses are about: They want to con­nect with the can­did­ates, they don’t care about money,” ad­ded Kochel, who called the event “a goat rodeo.”

The state GOP won’t take up the is­sue un­til after Novem­ber, said Chair­man Jeff Kaufmann, when Re­pub­lic­ans can turn their fo­cus past this year’s Sen­ate race and spate of com­pet­it­ive House races. But as soon as this year’s Elec­tion Day is over, deal­ing with the straw poll will be “front and cen­ter.”

“The most truth­ful an­swer I can give to that is, I don’t know” what will hap­pen, Kaufmann said. But he ad­ded: “It’s hard for me to en­vi­sion the sum­mer of 2015 without some kind of an event.”

Kaufmann is part of a group of loy­al­ists to Gov. Terry Bran­stad who re­cently re­gained con­trol of the Iowa Re­pub­lic­an Party, which had been con­trolled by Ron Paul sup­port­ers since the end of the 2012 elec­tion. While the Paul people were adam­ant that a straw poll should hap­pen, the new lead­er­ship makes it more likely that elim­in­at­ing the straw poll will be an op­tion on the table.

The state’s elec­ted of­fi­cials are at odds on the is­sue, too. Bran­stad, a Re­pub­lic­an fix­ture in the state, has long made it clear he feels the straw poll needs a sig­ni­fic­ant makeover if it’s still go­ing to hap­pen, won­der­ing back in 2012 if the event had “out­lived its use­ful­ness.”

Bran­stad told Na­tion­al Journ­al in an in­ter­view at the GOP’s Urb­andale field of­fice Wed­nes­day that much of the straw poll’s fate de­pends on how the pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates re­act to it.

“It really de­pends upon how the can­did­ates feel about it — I think you could have a series of re­gion­al events that could also raise money for the Re­pub­lic­an Party,” he said, stress­ing that the main goal is to “pre­serve the first-in-the-na­tion pre­cinct caucuses.”

Rep. Steve King, mean­while, is a stark de­fend­er of the event. At the Iowa State Fair on Fri­day, King told Na­tion­al Journ­al, “The only thing that we need to scrap is the talk about there not be­ing a straw poll.”

Rep. Michele Bach­mann of Min­nesota won the 2011 straw poll, but went on to fin­ish sixth in the caucuses; John Mc­Cain and Rom­ney, the 2008 and 2012 GOP nom­in­ees, re­spect­ively, did not in­vest heav­ily in the straw poll and still won their party’s nom­in­a­tion the fol­low­ing year. The 2011 straw poll also caused Min­nesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty to drop out of the race when he didn’t do as well as he’d hoped — evid­ence, to some, that the event holds too much power.

Still, former Arkan­sas Gov. Mike Hucka­bee came in second in the 2007 straw poll, a pre­curs­or to his vic­tory in the 2008 caucuses. And George W. Bush won the 1999 straw poll and then won Iowa in 2000.

Pro­ponents of the straw poll point out that it’s a huge fun­draiser for the state party, and thus hard to give up. It’s also a way to en­sure that Iowa con­tin­ues get­ting all the early cam­paign-trail ac­tion and me­dia ex­pos­ure.

“If I had to look in­to my crys­tal ball, which is some days cloudy, I would say there will prob­ably be a straw poll,” said Bob Haus, a long­time Iowa GOP op­er­at­ive who’s aligned with Texas Gov. Rick Perry. “But it will be in a dif­fer­ent form some­how. It will have to be, just based on the cri­ti­cisms from pre­vi­ous cam­paigns.”

The idea of re­gion­al events — say, one in each of the state’s four con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts — is men­tioned of­ten by Iowa politi­cians and act­iv­ists, though there are oth­er tweaks that could be made. Rather than hold­ing an ac­tu­al vote, some have sug­ges­ted turn­ing the event in­to a big speak­ers’ for­um and de­bate between the can­did­ates; selling tick­ets to such an event would still al­low the party to raise money. There’s also a chance that an out­side group, rather than the state party, could spon­sor the event.

Chuck Laud­ner, the GOP op­er­at­ive who ran San­tor­um’s Iowa cam­paign in 2012, pre­dicted that if the state party doesn’t hold an event next Au­gust, someone else will.

“If you get rid of the straw poll, what re­places it is go­ing to be 10 times worse,” Laud­ner said. “Nature will fill that void.”¦ In­stead of that straw poll, there’s go­ing to be 10 straw polls, 20 straw polls.”

Straw poll de­fend­ers like Laud­ner note that, at its core, the event is a fun gath­er­ing that brings to­geth­er voters who may not oth­er­wise get in­volved in the cam­paign.

“I un­der­stand that there are some Re­pub­lic­ans, and some can­did­ates in par­tic­u­lar, that don’t like it,” he said. “But that’s their prob­lem. If you don’t like the straw poll, there’s something wrong with you — it’s just a great day.”

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