The Iowa Straw Poll is Not Dead Yet
The Republican Party of Iowa received confirmation Thursday from the Republican National Committee that it can hold its traditional straw poll without violating the party's new rules governing the primary season calendar, meaning one of the more colorful events of the nomination season is likely to go forward this August.
Iowa's Republican State Central Committee is scheduled to formally vote Saturday on the future of the straw poll, a carnival-like event that features barbeque and speeches from presidential candidates in the state that traditionally hosts the first nomination balloting.
"The straw poll has absolutely no bearing on the official presidential nomination process," RNC General Counsel John Ryder wrote in a memo to Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann. "Indeed, it is exactly the nature of the Iowa straw poll as simply a fundraising mechanism at an entertainment event for Republican activists and their families, with absolutely no connection to any primary, caucuses or state convention, that protects the straw poll from the requirements of Rule 16(a)(1)."
The rule Ryder references deals with statewide presidential preference voting as established by the national party. He also touched on some of the other issues that have been raised by party leaders around the straw poll, including that it "disadvantages lesser known, lesser funded candidates who may not have the resources to compete effectively," is a "media-driven event that places too much influence over the Republican primary campaign in the hands of a largely hostile media," and also is in part "a consultant-driven event that allows professional political operatives to charge substantial fees to help candidates win what is substantially a media 'beauty pageant.'” Ryder also made the point that "candidates may choose to attend the event without participating in the straw poll or to not attend at all."
Earlier this week, Kaufmann met in Washington with RNC officials to make the case for continuation of the straw poll. In those meetings, he said he received assurances that there were no issues that would put at risk Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucus status.
“In discussions with senior RNC officials, including legal counsel, it was crystal clear that the Iowa GOP’s inclusion of a straw poll in an August 2015 fundraising event does not violate those new rules, nor place in jeopardy our status as the lead-off state in the presidential nomination process,” Kaufmann said in a statement Thursday.
“The message was that this is a voluntary, unscientific poll that is meant to be a snapshot of how people feel at this event in August and not meant to predict the outcome of the caucuses or the eventual Republican nominee,” said Charlie Szold, the state party's communications director. “That message was received.”
First held in 1979, the straw poll is viewed as a dress rehearsal for the Iowa caucuses and has often helped winnow the field of candidates before the actual nomination voting begins months later. Republicans have held it in August ahead of contested caucus elections, such as the one tentatively set for Feb. 1, 2016.
The event, typically held at Iowa State University in Ames, hasn't been without controversy, even among Iowa Republicans. Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, the state's top Republican, has called for the elimination of at least the balloting portion of the event, saying it places too much emphasis on a mostly meaningless outcome. Other critics, mostly from outside the state, have complained the straw poll gives Iowa two “first” events in the nomination process, though the straw poll is nonbinding.
“If the RNC legal opinion basically gives a green light to the Republican Party of Iowa to hold a straw poll without jeopardizing our first-in-the-nation caucus status, I would guess that the majority of the state central committee would go ahead and vote for it,” said Jamie Johnson, a member of the state central committee.
Even some past opponents of the straw poll are warming to the concept of it being held in August.
“Now that the party is run by people who have their act together and won't embarrass us, I think it's probably fine,” said Doug Gross, a Des Moines lawyer and Republican activist who was once Branstad's chief of staff. “I think it probably makes some sense from a winnowing standpoint and it will require the candidates to move up their organizational efforts.”
So far, Gross said he's seen little evidence of ground-game organization in Iowa, something that could rapidly change if prospective candidates know they have just seven months to get organized for the straw poll, which includes the distribution of thousands of tickets for supporters as well as providing transportation, food and entertainment for the actual event.
One of the other strikes against the straw poll has been its less-than-perfect record of predicting future success in the caucuses. Former Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota won the 2011 straw poll, but finished sixth in the caucuses and dropped out of the nomination race the next morning. Still, three other straw poll winners in recent history have gone on to win the Iowa caucuses, including George W. Bush in 1999, Bob Dole in 1995 and George H.W. Bush in 1979.
The absence of a straw poll-like event could create a vacuum that might be filled by one of the state's social conservative groups, such as the Family Leader, a coalition that opposes abortion rights and gay marriage. Establishment Republicans don't want to see social conservatives exert too much influence on the caucuses, for fear that they'd frighten away more moderate candidates. In something of an in-your-face move Wednesday, the Family Leader announced an extensive calendar of events for 2016 Republican presidential candidates, including one to be held on an August Saturday in Ames.