POLITICS

R.I.P. Iowa Straw Poll, 1979-2015

06/12/2015 03:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2015
Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

Ah, who doesn't love the Iowa Straw Poll? Whether it was the deep fried food on sticks, the reporters wearing sweet Iowa-themed tees from Raygun, or Republican candidates desperately pandering to a tiny sliver of their electorate, this straw poll had it all. But today, it's time to get wistful, because the Iowa Republican Party, which had long used the poll as a fundraiser, has elected to kill it off due to "flagging interest and unsustainable costs." The Iowa Straw Poll had to die so that our new system of weird billionaires deciding who wins elections might live. God speed you, straw poll, into the sweet hereafter.

Since 1979, Iowans have come together in the dog days of August (except for that one time in 1987 where they came together in September) to size up the Republican field and to state, once and for all, "Hey, this is non-binding and there's no delegate allocation, and we're all going to have caucuses a few months from now that actually count, right? Ehhh, I guess I'll vote for Pat Robertson?" In three of the straw poll's six iterations, the poll winner won the Iowa caucuses. On two occasions, the winner became the nominee. The one magical time that the Iowa Straw Poll winner went on to become president was with George W. Bush in 2000.

Hey, most political consultants would sell their children to space poltergeists to get a 1-in-6 win ratio, so let's not mock this too hard. And it's arguable that the straw poll matters on some level. Here is Matt Coulter, making that argument:

It’s the first real test of candidates on two different levels: organization and support. A win in Ames generally means you’ve succeeded in both of those arenas. And it also means you’ve succeeded in raising extravagant amounts of cash prior to the event.

Consider these statistics: Dubya spent $825,000 on the event in 1999 and walked away with first place. Steve Forbes spent over $2 million for his second-place finish. What did they spend the money on?

A better question might be what didn’t they spend the money on. Tickets to the event in 1999 were $25 apiece, which all the campaigns gladly paid for in return for a vote. Parking cost money, which again, the campaigns paid for -- if you even drove your own vehicle and didn’t take one of the free buses the campaigns chartered. Each campaign had tents outside the main hall for which they paid money -- increasing in price the closer to the hall the tent space was (the apex being Bush’s tent, which was closest to the hall and cost him $63,000). At each tent, the campaigns offered food and drinks as well as live music from famous musicians, all free. Steve Forbes even hosted a carnival of sorts, complete with children’s rides that he rented and set up. All in the quest to attract voters.

Even if the Iowa Straw Poll wasn't necessarily a launching pad for successful campaigns, it did provide some candidates with the message they needed to hear. That message? "Hey, man, good effort, but maybe this whole running for president thing isn't for you." And it's not always the candidates who fare the poorest. Last time out, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty went all out looking for a straw poll win in Iowa, only to finish third. A day later, he saw the writing on the wall. As the AP/Huffington Post reported:

"I wish it would have been different. But obviously the pathway forward for me doesn't really exist so we are going to end the campaign," Pawlenty said on ABC's "This Week" from Iowa shortly after disclosing his plans in a private conference call with supporters.

Pawlenty senior adviser Phil Musser told The Huffington Post that the Minnesota Republican "just wasn't willing to risk debt to soldier on -- part of why he would have been a good president."

I'm not sure that demonstrating your presidential timber by quitting your run for president is the most sustainable strategy in the world, Phil, but we'll let that go. Pawlenty went on to get a swank job, lobbying Beltway lawmakers on behalf of the Financial Services Roundtable, so in a way he really was the straw poll's big victor.

So, the Iowa Straw Poll is less about the winning than it is about the winnowing. But who winnows the winnowers? Since the 2012 straw poll, Iowa Republicans have been at sixes and sevens over whether the straw poll should continue. Which is probably a natural consequence of having Minnesota Sen. Michele Bachmann win your straw poll, to be honest! As early as November 2012, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad was telling the Wall Street Journal that the straw poll had "outlived its usefulness." His spokesman, Tim Albrecht, expanded on this in an interview with the Des Moines Register:

The straw poll is a disservice to Iowa Republicans in that it discourages top-tier candidates from attending, and therein threatens their participation in the caucuses, a la John McCain and Rudy Giuliani.

“Or, a candidate still finds success in the caucus despite not participating (Mitt Romney) or finishes sixth in the caucuses despite winning the straw poll (Michele Bachmann).”

Since then, there has been a prolonged period of angsty soul-searching, as the Iowa GOP searched for some sort of way to find the sweet spot between "event that all the credible candidates will attend" and "not having to break the bank in order to get them there." In January, Iowa Republicans voted to keep it going, eventually deciding to move it from Ames to Boone, home of the Central Iowa Expo. As Politico reported at the time:

The final vote to hold the event in Boone was unanimous among State Central Committee members, an Iowa GOP spokesman confirmed. The party touted Boone’s easy access from all points in the state — no more than three hours from the edges of Iowa. They also described it as a more affordable location to hold the event, ensuring maximum participation.

Back in May, the Iowa GOP made a big push to sell the straw poll to the Republican field of candidates, prompted in part by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's decision to give the event a hard pass. As Real Clear Politics' Rebecca Berg reported, "The party’s chairman and co-chairman, Jeff Kaufmann and Cody Hoefert, wrote and signed personal letters to each of the candidates, laying out the case for taking part in the straw poll, and delivered the letters Saturday."

All for naught! Today, Kaufmann announced in a statement that the straw poll was going the way of Ol' Yeller: "This step, while extremely distasteful for those of us who love the Straw Poll, is necessary to strengthen our First in the Nation status and ensure our future nominee has the best chance possible to take back the White House in 2016."

One can't help but feel like this is the right decision, as the Iowa Straw Poll was well on its way to becoming the pre-eminent high-risk-no-reward event of the pre-primary season. But as our own Igor Bobic points out, there's an irony: At a time when as "many as 15 Republicans may run for president ... practically guaranteeing a long and bruising race that may prove disadvantageous to the party's eventual nominee," the GOP has lost a pretty effective election-season widowmaker.

Oh well, there's always the pomp and pageantry of Florida's Straw Poll! Who can forget Florida Gov. Rick Scott back in September of 2011, proclaiming, "I personally believe that whoever wins that straw poll, they will be the next president of the United States."

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