Rick and Karen Santorum Rick Santorum placed 4th in Straw Poll, Iowa Caucus Winner
Rick and Karen Santorum
Rick Santorum placed 4th in Straw Poll, Iowa Caucus Winner

Some are making a huge deal out of Iowa Governor Terry Branstad’s comments yesterday that it is time to end the Iowa Straw Poll.  The BeanWalker.com which is Iowa’s version of the Drudge Report said “OVER” with a link to a CNN article referencing Governor Branstad’s comments.

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Craig Robinson of The Iowa Republican declared the Straw Poll dead.  A.J. Spiker, the chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa disagreed and noted – rightly – that Governor Branstad doesn’t make that decision.  In a statement on the Iowa GOP website he said:

I believe the Iowa Straw Poll is possibly the best way for a presidential campaign to organize (put in place county and precinct leaders & activate them) for Iowa’s First in the Nation Caucus. I think it is detrimental for any campaign to skip the opportunity presented in Ames and I disagree with Governor Branstad about ending our Iowa Straw Poll.

The State GOP and the presidential campaigns will determine if there is an Ames Straw Poll come 2015.

I’d like to point out, and perhaps I’m the only Republican willing to do so, that calling the event “over” and “dead” because Governor Branstad said it’s time has passed is giving him more influence than he actually has.  Yes he’s the Republican Governor of the state, but he doesn’t have nearly as much influence as Robinson and Tim Albrecht who owns The BeanWalker.com (who also is the communications director for Branstad) give him credit for.  Don’t believe me?  Look at how his hand picked candidates did in contested primary races – he didn’t even bat .500.  I understand that the electorate are not the ones who make the decision, but the base does help choose the State Central Committee.  Even if we have an entirely different SCC come 2015 there are many within the base who voted for Branstad in 2010 in the general (50% of Republicans voted against Branstad in the primary) because they wanted Culver out not because they were excited about a 5th Branstad term.

Kevin Hall notes, rightly, that Spiker may not be around to help make that decision about the Straw Poll.  Frankly Governor Branstad may not be Governor in 2015.  Based on how November 6th went I wouldn’t call his re-election a slam dunk and it is very likely he’ll have a primary challenger who could cost him resources prior to the general election.  Right now it’s likely he’d win the primary, but if the Democrats field a decent candidate it could be a tight race especially if the base of the party doesn’t get excited about a 6th Branstad term.

Regarding the event itself.  I can see both sides of this.  I understand that value it has in the process because I’ve viewed the Straw Poll’s role in our Caucus process as weeding out weak candidates.  It is a test of organization AND a test of whether your candidacy resonates with the base.  In 2011 Governor Tim Pawlenty’s campaign had a lot of staff and money, but lacked the grassroots organization necessary because they didn’t resonate with the base.  So while he spent the most money he lost.  In 2008 Mitt Romney spent the most money and won the Straw Poll, but the real winner was Mike Huckabee because he placed 2nd and exceeded expectations.  You could say the same about Rick Santorum in 2011 even though he placed 4th.  Michelle Bachmann won the Iowa Straw Poll in 2011, barely, but didn’t have the right campaign strategy and had missteps along the way.  Ron Paul also proved that he had an excellent organization – enough to win the delegates at the state convention and to win a majority of supporters on the State Central Committee.  Ron Paul finished third in the Iowa Caucus mainly because he had reached a threshold.

On the flip side it is a huge expenditure for campaigns and I can see why campaigns who don’t believe they’ll do well in Iowa would skip it.  Also the last two times the winner of the Iowa Caucus has not won the Straw Poll so I can understand that argument.

Like I said before though I don’t think ultimately that is what the Ames Straw Poll does.  It does give momentum.  Ask Mike Huckabee.  Rick Santorum did well enough for him to stay in the race and win the Iowa Caucus.  That doesn’t mean that the winner of the Ames Straw Poll won’t win the Iowa Caucus, but it doesn’t guarantee it.  It’s good exposure, a good opportunity to retail politic, and a good way to make your case to thousands of Iowans who represent the base.

I think the primary goal is making sure Iowa maintains its First in the Nation status so I won’t put a lot of energy into defending the Iowa Straw Poll.  Obviously if I had to choose between the two I’d say can the Straw Poll.  But I believe it has played and can continue to play a beneficial role for Iowa Republicans to get to know candidates better.  I can see tweaking it – lowering the cost for candidates, having it at a different venue, or something else.  But I’d hate to see it go altogether.  I think it is important to the process, and I especially liked having a debate coincide with it – though I believe participation in the straw poll should be a requirement for participation in the debate.  The Iowa GOP should not have given Mitt Romney a pass on that.  If they didn’t we may not even be having this conversation right now.

So if possible keep the Straw Poll, but look to see how it can be improved to be a better event for candidates and Iowa’s Republicans.

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