The Republican Party of Iowa finally put its signature event of the past 36 years out of its misery. The Iowa Straw Poll, held in the year prior to presidential elections, had already become mostly dead, thanks to a series of unrepresentative results culminating in last year’s embarrassing finish in which none of the top three contenders came close to winning the caucuses. Now Republicans have made official what everyone already knew:
The governing board for the Republican Party of Iowa voted unanimously Friday to cancel the straw poll, a milestone on the path to the White House that had passed the strategic tipping point. It was no longer a political risk for presidential campaigns to walk away from the straw poll, and too many of the 2016 contenders had opted to skip it for it to survive. …
Back in January, the Iowa GOP board unanimously to proceed with the event, a daylong political festival meant to showcase the party’s presidential candidates and to bring Iowa Republicans together for food, music and field-winnowing. They had scheduled it to take place not in Ames, its historic home, but at a venue in rural Boone.
The decision comes as the party fundraiser appeared to be on the verge of falling flat because so many presidential contenders were steering clear of it. Some candidates had said they might show up to give a speech, but wouldn’t spend money trying to win the straw poll. That meant the fundraiser would likely have struggled to break even, much less garnered hundreds of thousands for the party as it has in the past.
To quote from The Princess Bride, it was no longer mostly dead — it was at the stage where one goes through its pockets to look for loose change. This has mainly served as a fundraiser for Iowa Republicans, as well as a way to force candidates to spend considerable time and money in the state. In 2011, that backfired in a big way when Tim Pawlenty went all in and got blown out by Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul. None of them seriously contended for the nomination, although Paul finished a close third in the initial caucuses to Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, and eventually took most of the delegates.
Craig Robinson, writing for The Iowa Republican, lays the blame for the end on the party and the straw poll organizers and the Iowa GOP’s performance in January 2012. They ended up having to sacrifice the straw poll because their heavy-handed tactics put their January caucus placing in danger, especially when they couldn’t get their counts accurate the last time out:
The Iowa GOP also didn’t do itself any favors a couple weeks ago when Cody Hoefert, the Co-Chair of the Republican Party of Iowa, sent the campaigns threatening text messages saying the county GOP leaders in the northwest part of the state where he is from would not be helpful to candidates who skip the Straw Poll. County GOP leaders also created a petition for Iowa caucus goers to sign to encouraging candidates to participate in the event.
Those heavy-handed actions backfired, and instead of getting candidates to commit to the Straw Poll, suddenly the Iowa GOP was getting some not so subtle reaction from some very powerful Republicans. The message was clear: the Iowa GOP, by demanding participation in the Straw Poll, was going down the road on which they could jeopardize the state’s coveted First-in-the-Nation status.
There are a whole host of things that got the Republican Party to this point, but the major factor stems from the fiasco around the results for the 2012 caucuses. The razor thin margin between Romney and Santorum on caucus night 2012 exposed some big problems with the caucuses themselves. It’s one thing to devote a lot of time and energy to the Straw Poll when the caucuses don’t experience any problems, but it’s another thing to be hung up on the Straw Poll when you don’t announce the correct winner on caucus night and it takes weeks to figure out who actually won, and even then, you mess that up too.
Again, lets be honest. Since the 2012 caucuses, Iowa has behaved like a spoiled child in front of the Republican National Committee, which votes to every four years on whether or not Iowa deserves it’s First-in-the-Nation status. The combination of the caucus night results, the Iowa delegation going to Tampa and awarding the majority of the state delegates to Ron Paul at the 2012 Republican National Convention, the fact that Iowa’s National Committeewoman voted against the carve-out for the four early states, and finally the recent pressuring of candidates who had not yet confirmed their participation in the event, shows that Iowa wasn’t putting its best foot forward.
The fact that this vote was unanimous shows how badly this event hurt the credibility of the state party in the last cycle. The campaigns in this cycle didn’t see any benefit from spending a large amount of money on a fundraiser for the state GOP when they would get almost nothing out of it, no matter how much Iowa played the “tradition” card. Campaigns in both parties spend an inordinate amount of time in Iowa as it is, and that money could go to many other purposes and many other areas where it will have more impact, including in Iowa.
Nevertheless, the straw poll had its charm on the one occasion I attended. It created some interesting if temporary buzz and put all of the candidates on the ground at the same time to connect with Republican grassroots voters. We’ll actually see something very similar in August at the Red State Gathering in Atlanta on the same weekend that the Iowa Straw Poll was scheduled to take place — a Salem Media Group event for which most of the campaigns have already committed.
At least now, we can stop pretending that the straw poll is just resting.