If you build it, it turns out that they will not necessarily come.
The Republican Party of Iowa reluctantly but unanimously voted Friday to kill its August straw poll.
Just five months ago, in January, the same group voted unanimously to go forward with the quadrennial extravaganza – despite the fact that the sitting GOP governor had called for scrapping it and operatives for some of the leading presidential candidates were threatening not to participate.
Michele Bachmann’s victory in the 2011 straw poll, and subsequent collapse, combined with Tim Pawlenty dropping out after his third-place finish, made it hard to convince the most serious of the 2016 candidates that they should participate, even though the tradition remains very popular with the rank-and-file.
In the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams,” an Iowa farmer facing foreclosure decides to build a baseball diamond in his field after hearing an inspirational speech from a ghost played by James Earl Jones. Miraculously, the Chicago Black Sox appear.
There will be no baseball in Iowa this summer. With the possibility of a big financial loss, public humiliation and worse, the party’s central committee bowed to reality.
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Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was first to announce, exactly one month ago, that he would skip the event. That gave cover to others, including 2008 Iowa caucus winner Mike Huckabee, to say they would too. Others have been playing a game of chicken, waiting and hoping for others to bow out, trying to ascertain whether the upside outweighs the downside.
Here are seven takeaways from the decision:
Scott Walker will remain the nominal Iowa frontrunner for the foreseeable future.
The Wisconsin governor, who has led in early polling, faced a Catch-22. If he did not participate, he’d look as if he was running scared and alienate some of his core constituencies. If he participated and lost, he’d look weak. If he participated and won, he’d have had to spend a lot of money and there would have been no bounce afterward (because everyone would say he was supposed to win).
Early this year, Walker signed Iowa consultants with extensive experience at straw polls, David Polyansky and Eric Woolson. A series of strong performances on the stump, and a favorite son status of sorts, catapulted him to the top of the pack in the state.
But with each passing month, it was increasingly obvious that Walker’s team wanted an out. His campaign-in-waiting privately tried to signal that he didn’t want to go by not sending an emissary to an important informational meetings about logistics, for instance. But their public position continued to be that Walker would not decide until after officially becoming a candidate. The wink-and-nod answer annoyed some Iowa grassroots but not as much as if he had said no.
Recent polling showed a slight majority of likely Iowa caucusgoers agreed it was important the candidates participate. More than 150 GOP activists signed a petition last month pushing the frontrunners to go. Walker has been regularly asked during his routine visits to the state if he will participate.
Now, he doesn’t have to let anyone down.
The process of winnowing down the gigantic GOP field will now take longer.
It’s much easier to lose the Iowa straw poll than to win it, and the event has played an important role over time in paring down the field and helping determine who the finalists will be at the caucuses a few months later.
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Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, was arguably the right’s best bet to stop Mitt Romney from getting the nomination in 2012, at least on paper. But he built his candidacy around carrying Iowa and to do that he made the strategic blunder of going all-in at Ames in August 2011. He ran summer TV ads and spent heavily on trying to mobilize likely supporters, using money he didn’t really have. He ended his candidacy the morning after finishing third, with 13.6 percent of the votes, on the theory that fundraising was about to dry up.
Back in 2007, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson dropped out of the race after his sixth-place finish in the straw poll. More importantly, social conservatives decided to begin coalescing around former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee after he outperformed then-Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback at the event. [Mitt Romney won that year, but he got no meaningful boost from it, which is why he blew it off in 2011.]
In 1999, Tennessee heavyweight Lamar Alexander and former Vice President Dan Quayle dropped out right after getting smoked at the straw poll by George W. Bush.
In 2015, with the field way bigger, the end of the straw poll means one less tool to force some of the underachievers out of the race. That could mean more people are in the race for the caucuses on Feb. 1, which could splinter support and allow someone to win with a very small share of the vote.
It just got harder to gauge whose organization is for real.
Organization matters more than polling in Iowa. Only around 100,000 people show up on a winter night for the Republican caucuses, a much lower turnout than a primary. Caucusing requires a multi-hour commitment.
A candidate can poll really well, but they will not win Iowa without a meaningful investment in field programs or infrastructure provided by outside groups. These turnout efforts are extraordinarily hard to gauge. Campaigns release metrics about voter contacts, but they don’t really mean much and operatives have been known to wildly exaggerate.
Caucus history is littered with candidates who way over-hyped the strength of their grassroots armies, only to be humiliated when they did not show up. The most memorable example is Howard Dean in 2004, but only because his disastrous finish was punctuated by his screaming concession speech.
Straw polls are great as a test of organizational muscle. Getting thousands of Iowans around the state to board buses early in the morning on a Saturday in August takes logistical skills and supporters excited about the candidate.
Santorum’s relatively strong finish fourth place finish in 2011 was basically overlooked at the time, but it helped foreshadow his late surge. It was a practice run that he learned from and a base of devoted volunteers he cultivated through January.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz gets a raucous response at every public event he holds in Iowa. He gets great crowds. But can he translate that enthusiasm into volunteers manning phones and knocking doors? Now we may not know for sure until next February.
Ditto with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
His father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, almost won the 2011 straw poll, losing to Bachmann by just 152 votes out of 16,892 cast – less than 1 percent. His ability to turn out the true believers showed the elder Paul had his act together and was running a more serious campaign than in 2008. Ultimately, Ron Paul finished third place on caucus night – trailing Santorum and Romney by just 3 points.
In 2016, Rand Paul is trying to shore up his father’s base while galvanizing new voters to be part of his coalition. It’s a difficult balancing act, and polls show he’s struggling – underperforming his father’s finish in Iowa. If he had competed in the straw poll, we could have gotten a better sense of whether the die-hard Paul people from 2012 have really transferred their loyalty. Just like with Cruz, we may need to wait until February to know for sure.
A real danger, especially for first-time candidates, is that they now have less incentive to spend the summer investing in robust field programs that build grassroots support.
Fox News now has more power ever over the Republican nominating process.
The stakes in the first GOP debate, taking place on Fox News in August, are now much higher. The cable channel is only going to allow the top 10 candidates, based on an average of national polls, on stage. There will be a separate forum for everyone else that afternoon, but it’s hard to imagine many voters watching a kid’s table debate.
There is intense frustration among activists in Iowa and New Hampshire that Fox is picking based on early state polls. And there’s a feeling that Fox is not being as transparent as it should in disclosing which polls they’ll review. Either way, it means candidates won’t get rewarded for making inroads locally in a place like Iowa. Some super PACs are now seriously considering running TV ads nationally to try and boost polls numbers for their candidates enough so that they can get into the debate.
With 10 people on stage, it’s hard to imagine anyone having a really significant breakout moment. Still, the debate will fill a vacuum at an important moment in the race. And it reflects that the presidential race has become a much more national affair over the past few cycles, especially as donors and others outside the state can more easily follow along.
It will be harder for a second-tier candidate to capture lightning-in-a-bottle.
Without a place like the straw poll to exceed expectations, it will be harder for dark horse candidates to catch on.
Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon seeking elected office for the first time, was planning to compete in the straw poll. Donald Trump, the businessman who perennially flirts with running but has yet to pull the trigger, was also toying with it.
Huckabee probably wouldn’t have won the caucuses in 2008 if he hadn’t finished a surprising second in Ames. It forced the national and local press to cover his campaign in a way they would not otherwise have.
In a win for the establishment, Gov. Terry Branstad got his way – again.
A big chunk of the GOP establishment hates the straw poll because of its history of lifting candidates who they see as totally unelectable. Evangelist Pat Robertson, for instance, beat sitting Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1987.
But after Bachmann’s 2011 win, and after Romney lost Iowa in the 2012 general election, Branstad publicly said the straw poll had outlived its usefulness and should be rethought. This caused quite a kerfuffle, and he subsequently walked it back somewhat.
Ron Paul’s supporters used the 2012 caucus process to seize control of the state GOP. Their delegates showed up, and so Paul wound up controlling the delegation at the Republican National Convention. Trying to secure reelection in 2014, Branstad’s team mobilized friendly activists to challenge all the Paul-aligned members of the central committee. They seized back control of the state party one year ago this weekend at a convention in Des Moines.
But even the pro-Branstad members still wanted to have a straw poll because it was so popular with the grassroots. Conservative Rep. Steve King badly wanted it to continue, and it was scheduled to take place in his House district. The state’s senior senator, Chuck Grassley, publicly encouraged candidates to participate. The governor relented and went along. Friday’s vote is vindication.
This might help Iowa’s privileged status long-term.
Iowans were definitely conscious Friday of the desire to make sure their state gets to continue kicking off the presidential nominating process.
After Huckabee and Santorum won the straw poll in 2008 and 2012, respectively, but then failed to win the nomination, Iowa has become less relevant. Establishment-oriented candidates such as Jeb Bush, whose dad won the first straw poll in 1979, are trying to downplay expectations and spending as little time in the state as possible. John McCain won the Republican nomination in 2008 despite basically writing off Iowa. If it happens again, Iowa’s status will be in danger.
The straw poll has long been something that Iowa haters cite to try diminishing the state. With none of the top-tier candidates committed, there was fear that the straw poll would wind up elevating a relatively nobody this August and the whole process would become a laughingstock.
Jeff Kaufmann, the chairman of the state party, hopes that the straw poll returns in the future.
“While we still deeply believe that the Straw Poll offers a fantastic opportunity for candidates,” he said in a statement, “we need to focus on strengthening our First in the Nation status and putting a Republican back in the White House.”