The Republican National Committee has caved. Despite widespread criticism of the Ames Straw Poll, a first-in-the-nation contest in which Republican candidates vie for bragging rights associated with a victory, the GOP determined that the poll could go forward again in 2016.
There were reservations. The Republican National Committee has been concerned about the straw poll’s increasing failure to reflect the ultimate preferences of Iowa’s Republican voters (which, for that matter, often fail to reflect the preferences of Republican voters nationally). In 2011, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) emerged from Ames victorious. In 2007, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney took the top slot. Neither would go on to win the Iowa caucuses or the party’s nomination.
Local Republicans, too, were concerned over whether the straw poll was worth the risk to the state’s reputation and, thus, its coveted position on the primary calendar. Others complain that it is too expensive for candidates with limited resources to compete in this early contest, and not worth the funds or energy demanded of the candidate who does want to participate. Even the state’s longtime governor, Terry Branstand, has criticized the straw poll and endorsed giving up on 36-year-old institution.
“So it’s become a resource-draining enterprise that can hurt badly if you lose, but won’t necessarily help if you win,” The National Journal reported in August in a piece loaded with quotes from local GOP operatives who conceded that it might be time to put the straw poll to pasture.
“The straw poll has sadly become little more than a blatant money-making venture for the state Republican party that costs presidential campaigns enormous amounts of money, exacerbates divisions within the Republican Party and prematurely winnows the field long before rank-and-file voters ever have a chance to participate,” political analyst Charlie Cook told The Des Moines Register. “Perhaps if it were an afternoon of presidential contenders speaking followed by a week of registered Republicans voting out at the State Fair or something like that, broadening the base of those participating, it might be different.”
Of course, there are others who are broadly supportive of the poll; people like Dr. Ben Carson. Surely, the fact that his organization has focused on mobilizing support in Iowa and is likely to do quite well in the straw poll has nothing to do with it.
“The Iowa Straw Poll has become a meaningful tradition that gives citizen activists — not just the political power brokers — an opportunity to advance the issues that matter to them,” Carson said.
Another Iowan of outsize influence over the nomination process who spoke with the Des Moines Register, Bob Vander Plaats, a man whose endorsement is thought to be the key to victory in the Republican caucuses, has also endorsed the straw poll.
“There’s no other event that’s going to rally that many Republicans on one day in the summer, with that much media coverage,” he said. “We should be careful to not downplay it. It loses a lot of its importance, and quite frankly a lot of the reasons to participate, if we downplay it.”
There are, however, some caveats associated with the RNC’s decision to allow the Ames poll to go forward. According to a memo obtained by Politico, state party representatives will have to be sure not to violate new rules in place regarding their conduct.
There have been significant changes to the Republican Party’s national rules since the last presidential election, but Ryder said the carnival-like event is okay because “the straw poll has absolutely no bearing on the presidential nominating process.” And the candidates are not required to participate.
“As long as the Iowa Republican Party refrains from promoting the straw poll as any kind of official event with implications for the delegate selection process, it is hard to see a basis for finding that the ‘straw poll’ is implicated by The Rules of the Republican Party,” [RNC general counsel John] Ryder wrote in a memo obtained by POLITICO.
With the GOP grassroots and donor classes coming into increasing conflict, it is a safe bet that the candidate who commands the most enthusiasm among straw poll participants is not going to reflect the preferences of the Beltway GOP.