Photo credit: My Homemade Iowa Life
Photo credit: My Homemade Iowa Life

Iowa Governor Terry Branstad has been down on the Republican Party of Iowa keeping the Ames Straw Poll in the past saying it has outlived its usefulness. Yesterday during his weekly press conference he said it needs to go.  He is supportive of a large summertime event, however.

“I think a lot of people like the idea of having an event like we’ve had in Ames for many years, but I believe a number of the candidates have chosen not to participate because they don’t think it’s necessarily representative.  The most important thing is to keep the Iowa Caucuses first in the nation and the first real test of candidates,” Branstad said.

He pointed out that it wasn’t his decision to make.  “And obviously this is a decision to be made by the Republican State Central Committee, not me,” Branstad stated. “But I think that we want to be welcoming to all candidates. I want to encourage ‘em all to come and participate and I think you could have an event like that without actually taking a Straw Poll.”

I am personally a fan of the Ames Straw Poll and would hate to see it go away though it would not be the end of the world if it did.  Does it need to be tweaked?  Certainly.  Events can always be improved.  Here are the pros of the event:

  • The people, no other event in Iowa has been able to attract thousands of Iowans to hear from the candidates.
  • Retail politics – it’s a great and fun way to rub elbows with candidates and get to know them better.
  • It helps winnow out weak campaigns.  I think the straw poll is more effective at doing that than it is in predicting a winner.
  • It’s a great fundraiser for the state party.

The cons of the event.

  • Candidates feel fleeced.  Campaigns spend a lot of money for land where they can feed and entertain supporters.
  • Candidates and media over inflate the meaning of a Ames Straw Poll victory.  Governor Branstad said the candidates feel it’s not representative.  He’s right, it’s not, it’s a straw poll and the results are skewed especially when candidates try to buy a victory (ask Michelle Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney how that worked out for them).
  • It is a huge time and resource suck for state party staff.

The question for the 2015 Ames Straw Poll, if it is held, is whether establishment candidates will show up like Florida Governor Jeb Bush or New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.  It’s questionable how much they will campaign in the state however.  I find it unlikely that a candidate would participate in the straw poll and then not campaign in Iowa.

The cost-benefit factor is why some campaigns don’t participate.  John McCain was broke in 2007.  Giuliani pretty much skipped Iowa to begin with, not just the Ames Straw Poll.  Mitt Romney bought his Ames Straw Poll victory in 2007 and still lost the Iowa Caucus so he felt burnt and knew he wouldn’t win unless he invested resources into the straw poll.  It is also important to note that Romney stayed out of the state altogether until polling showed he was doing well in Iowa (going along with my earlier point that participants are those who campaign in the state).  The straw poll didn’t keep him from campaigning here.

I don’t think candidates trying to purchase a victory is a good strategy anyway.  Campaigns that have real support in Iowa and a strong ground game will do well in the Ames Straw Poll even if they don’t win.  In the last two straw polls the real winners were those who exceeded expectations, not the candidates who won.  If campaigns got away from trying to purchase the event it would make it make the straw poll results more interesting to begin with.

Some ideas to improve the straw poll.

  • Give campaigns space to mingle with supporters instead of having them bid for it.  Place the campaigns in the same general area.
  • Recruit organizations and sponsors to partner with the state party to hold the event.  Who says the Republican Party of Iowa needs to do this by themselves?
  • Recruit vendors to sell food, bring in inflatables, sponsors can host entertainers, etc.  That way this is not done on the backs of the candidates.
  • Incorporate a debate into the actual day of the straw poll, this provides an incentive for participation and opens up the debate to all who attend the straw poll not just a smaller number the night before.  This would also provide more information for voters who attend when they can watch the debate live, mingle with the candidates during the day and hear their stump speeches.
  • Discourage campaigns from purchasing tickets by not selling the campaigns tickets.  Focus on individual ticket purchases at the door, online and through sponsors.  Keep the cost low in order to promote maximum involvement.  It may require finding a different venue if necessary.

Can all this be done without a straw poll?  Sure.  I agree with Governor Branstad that the primary focus is maintaining our first in the nation status.  I just don’t think holding a straw poll keeps Iowa Republicans from that goal.  If the party ends up going a different route, so be it.

What say you?  Should the Ames Straw Poll stay or go?  Participate in our reader poll and share your reasons why in the comments section.  Also share your ideas on how the straw poll or an event like it could be improved.

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