Iowa Selling Revised Straw Poll to 2016 GOP Field
In Des Moines on Saturday, the 11 Republican White House hopefuls who spoke at the state party’s Lincoln Dinner weren’t just making their case to Iowans.
Hawkeye State Republicans were giving the candidates the hard sell, too, hoping to persuade them to participate in the presidential straw poll in August, a traditional event leading up to the Iowa caucuses that is now facing something of an existential crisis.
The party’s chairman and co-chairman, Jeff Kaufmann and Cody Hoefert, wrote and signed personal letters to each of the candidates, laying out the case for taking part in the straw poll, and delivered the letters Saturday.
Meanwhile, as the candidates schmoozed after their speeches in hospitality rooms, they were met with a steady flow of state GOP bigwigs pitching the quadrennial event, including Iowa Republican Party Executive Director Chad Olsen, Gov. Terry Branstad, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, and Sen. Joni Ernst.
“There is a full-court press going on to get people to participate,” said Karen Fesler, an activist who is backing former Sen. Rick Santorum.
The push has taken on a new sense of urgency since former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush confirmed earlier this month that he plans to skip the straw poll, instead opting to attend a conservative gathering in Georgia hosted by the blog RedState.
“We hope Governor Bush rethinks his decision and realizes that grassroots will only grow in Iowa if he waters them,” Kaufmann tweeted. “The RedState Gathering is a four day event and other candidates have already indicated that they will be attending both. We don’t buy this excuse and neither will Iowans.”
But Bush would not be the first establishment-leaning Republican in recent years to send his regrets: Mitt Romney skipped the straw poll in 2011, as did John McCain and Rudy Giuliani in 2007.
“We made a decision not to compete in any straw polls,” said Stuart Stevens, Romney’s top campaign strategist during the 2012 election cycle. “It was just an analysis of risk-reward and resources.”
Much of the angst among Republicans is derived from the poll’s recent failure to predict the Republican nominee or even the winner of the caucuses. In 2007, Romney poured considerable resources into winning the straw poll, only to lose both the state and the Republican nomination. And in 2011, Michele Bachmann seized the top slot in the poll — but her candidacy fizzled immediately thereafter.
Some candidates in recent years have even found their participation in the straw poll to be politically fatal. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty spent an eye-popping $1 million in 2011 on organizing for the event, but dropped out of the race when he posted a disappointing third-place finish.
The Iowa GOP has made a slew of changes to correct some of the straw poll’s shortcomings and make the event more attractive to candidates. There will no longer be an auction for prime booths at the gathering, a cost-saving measure for campaigns, and the poll will be held in a new location in Boone, Iowa.
“We doing a lot of things at the state party to make it as appealing as possible,” said Hoefert.
Even the poll itself was up for debate; ultimately, the state party’s central committee decided unanimously to keep it. But Iowa Republicans are trying to put less emphasis on the results and more on the event surrounding the poll as a prime opportunity to connect with Iowa voters.
“We're just trying to get it back to a place where the candidates come out, Iowans can meet them, and if someone comes out ahead for the day, they're the winner for the day,” Fesler said.
State Republicans are also trying to make the case that participation in the straw poll will have some bearing on the outcome of the caucuses next winter, despite results in the past two election cycles suggesting the contrary.
“I told several campaigns over weekend, ‘Your turnout on caucus night will be directly reflective of the time and energy you put into Iowa,’” Hoefert said. “Iowans reward good behavior, and they reward people who come to the state and participate in events.”
The state party is still holding out hope that Bush will change his mind — and, indeed, his likely national campaign manager, David Kochel, is a well-regarded Iowa strategist whose background would lend itself to making the most of such an event.
But, with or without Bush, “several” other candidates have committed to attend and plan to announce their participation at later dates, Hoefert emphasized.
“Some of the national media quite honestly [are] putting this together like nobody wants to come,” Hoefert said, “but we have several campaigns who will be participating in the straw poll.”