There is currently a lot of finger-pointing going on after the Republican Party of Iowa State Central Committee voted to cancel the iconic Iowa Straw Poll started in 1979. Current party leadership blames the previous leadership. Some grassroots activists are blaming the current party leadership.
The thing is there is no one smoking gun.
Some have blamed the previous 2011 Iowa Straw Poll winner.
Two factors contributed to former Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s win. 1. It was an unsettled field and very fluid situation. Bachmann at that time had a lot of grassroots support among evangelicals in particular. 2. She enticed quite a few people to attend with her entertainment having Randy Travis perform at her tent drew people who, frankly, may not have come otherwise. She had a lot of money to spend at that point dropping $2 million to win. I doubt she would have won it without Travis.
Bachmann, looking at the state of the race in August 2011, could have very well gone on to do well except her campaign imploded in the fall. There was scandal with her campaign being tied to the theft of the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators, that probably lost support. Her state co-chair, Kent Sorenson, baled. She tried to ramrod a 99 county tour in the fall. There was a disconnect between her national staff and state staff. So post-Iowa Straw Poll her campaign was an unmitigated disaster.
Her win in 2011 still sent a message that you can win the Iowa Straw Poll, receive no bounce from it, and end up coming in a distant 6th place. This is not exactly an inspiring argument for candidates to jump in and invest money. Bachmann’s win and subsequent collapse gave credibility to the argument that the Iowa Straw Poll is irrelevant.
The media has jacked up expectations for the Iowa Straw Poll over the years. Frankly, the winner is never really the big news in my book (something Mitt Romney discovered in 2007). The news is who outperforms due to a lack of cash as well as those who bomb despite having resources. In 2007 it was Mike Huckabee. In 2011 it was Rick Santorum. There is so much pressure put on certain candidates that they have to “win” it or they’ll be “toast.”
Tim Pawlenty tried to buy a win, but while he had staff and money, but he didn’t have a real ground game in Iowa. The decision to go all in with the Iowa Straw Poll was his however.
Also if attendance at the Iowa Straw Poll dropped that would be an unmitigated disaster. The media and others expected the state party to meet or exceed the number of attendees that attended in 2011. I highly doubt that would happen as I explain further a little later.
Iowa Governor Terry Branstad shares some of the blame. Coming out against the Iowa Straw Poll gave some candidates some carte blanche permission to skip. He did the Republican Party of Iowa a disservice with his earlier comments. If there had been leadership at the state party that he liked at the time I’m not sure he would have said what he said. His 2014 campaign apparatus was just as much about winning control of the State Central Committee back from the liberty wing of the party as it was winning reelection.
Unfortunately current Iowa GOP Chair Jeff Kaufmann did nothing once being elected to mitigate that damage early on. Branstad recently showed some tepid support, but it’s really too little, too late.
Scrutiny on Iowa’s First in the Nation Status
Rightly or wrongly, Iowa delegates voting for Ron Paul at the Republican National Convention in 2012 put added scrutiny on Iowa’s First in the Nation status. A.J. Spiker’s rocky time as chair and the fundraising woes he faced didn’t help as well. I don’t want to opine about the merits of this, but simply to say with that scrutiny placed on Iowa’s First in the Nation status it puts the Iowa Straw Poll under a microscope.
The cost of the Iowa Straw Poll.
Some view the Iowa Straw Poll as a lucrative fundraiser for the Republican Party of Iowa. In reality it really isn’t when you consider how expensive it is to run. Changes made to the Iowa Straw Poll also shifted some costs to the party – such as food. Also getting rid of the lot bidding process is lost revenue for the party. With candidate participation waning, even among those who said they would attend but not invest any resources into the event, that placed additional pressure on the party to sell tickets.
In 2011, the candidates purchased 19-20K of the tickets sold. The party only sold 4,000 independent tickets. Sources tell me they would have need to sell 8,000 – 9,000 tickets to break even something they have never done before and with multiple candidates saying they won’t participate makes that look simply impossible.
Ultimately it is up to the candidates whether the Iowa Straw Poll happens.
The Iowa Straw Poll has always succeeded in winnowing down the field. That is where it is primarily useful. Candidate participation, however, is what makes it successful, and if you have multiple candidates skipping creates a problem. We have an unusual field having the previous two Iowa Caucus Republican winners among the candidates. Everyone expected Jeb Bush to skip. That wasn’t a surprise. When Mike Huckabee said he was going to take a pass, and when Rick Santorum said he would attend, but not invest resources in the event that sends a message to other candidates.
In both men’s cases I can understand. Participating in the Iowa Straw Poll this year was very high-risk for both. Who wouldn’t expect an Iowa Caucus winner to do very well at the Iowa Straw Poll if not win? That places a lot of pressure on their campaigns that wouldn’t be welcome. Had we not had earlier Iowa Caucus winners in the field I have to wonder if I would even be writing this article.
With only four candidate showing interest in participating with others sitting on the fence it is unlikely that the Iowa Straw Poll would be successful.