Iowa Straw Poll Tradition to Continue—Assuming Candidates Show

Republicans plan to stress the event's unscientific nature to the candidates and the media.

Republican voters make their way through the recreational area set up by Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes on the grounds of Iowa State University 14 August 1999 in Ames, Iowa.

Republican voters make their way through the recreational area set up by Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes on the grounds of Iowa State University 14 August 1999 in Ames, Iowa.

DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

The barbeque, balloting, and carnival-like atmosphere of the Iowa Straw Poll will go on for at least one more presidential election cycle.

Iowa's Republican State Central Committee on Saturday voted to host a straw poll, likely on Aug. 8, after receiving assurances from the Republican National Committee that such a gathering wouldn't put the state's first-in-the-nation caucus status at risk. The motion to host the 2015 straw poll passed unanimously, 16-0, during a meeting at the party's headquarters in Des Moines.

"This is a tradition that Iowa Republicans adore," Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa, said in an interview. "I think our grassroots believed that the straw poll portion of the event is very important."

That doesn’t mean that questions about the event—exactly where it will be held, for instance, or how seriously the candidates and the media will take the event—have disappeared. Establishment Republicans have sometimes taken a pass on the poll, either because they didn't want to invest the time and money needed to assure strong placement, or because they feared a poor showing could tarnish a front-runner image. In 2011, eventual nominee Mitt Romney declined to participate. 

"The perception is largely out of my control," said Kaufmann, who was also re-elected to a two-year term at Saturday's meeting. "All the candidates can see that this is an event that is not set up to predict who would win the caucuses."

On Monday, Kaufmann said he received a call from a strategist for one of the prospective candidates, asking whether the straw poll would be held. He said he told the strategist that a straw poll was likely. The caller replied that it was "clear that they were going to plan to participate."

Kaufmann will appoint a committee to study the logistics of the straw poll and that group will be charged with reporting its findings at the state party's leadership meeting next quarter.

Then-Texas Governor George W. Bush urges supporters to vote for him in August 1999 Iowa Straw Poll in Ames.
Then-Texas Governor George W. Bush urges supporters to vote for him in August 1999 Iowa Straw Poll in Ames.
LUKE FRAZZA/AFP/Getty Images

First held in 1979, the gathering is viewed as a dress rehearsal for the Iowa caucuses. It has often helped winnow the field of candidates before the actual nomination voting, which occurs months later. Republicans hold the straw poll the August ahead a contested caucus election, such as the one tentatively set for Feb. 1, 2016.

In recent months, there had been discussion that the party could host one or even multiple summertime gatherings for 2016 presidential candidates as party-fundraising events, without the non-binding balloting. But social conservatives opposed that approach, appreciating the straw poll's ability to help one of their own break through—as it did in 2011, when former Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota won.

Bachmann's victory is often cited as an example of the straw poll's less-than-perfect record of predicting success in the caucuses. When they came, she finished sixth, and then dropped out of the nomination race the next morning. That said, three other straw poll winners in recent history went on to win the caucuses, including George W. Bush in 1999, Bob Dole in 1995 and George H.W. Bush in 1979.

This year, Iowa Republicans plan to stress the event's unscientific nature to the candidates and the media. Although it provides an early measure of organizational strength, its outcome also reflects who can bus in the most supporters—generally, but not entirely, from Iowa—and pay for their admission tickets, food, and entertainment.

Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, the state's top Republican, had called for the elimination of at least the balloting portion of the event, saying it places too much emphasis on a mostly meaningless outcome that can frighten some candidates away from competing in the state.

Kaufmann said that he spoke with the governor's chief of staff ahead of the central committee's vote and received an offer of assistance, should the party move forward. "The governor is already on board," he said.

The event has traditionally been held on the campus of Iowa State University in Ames. Rental of the space has been the party's top event cost. Kaufmann said that he's looking for more affordable alternatives, perhaps the grounds of the Farm Progress Show in nearby Boone, Iowa.

"I would like to have it in Ames, but this is going to be a fiscally responsible decision," he said. "I will almost guarantee that this will not be among our top five fundraisers."

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