Branstad opens gates for Iowa straw poll criticism
On the 13th of August last year, Rep. Michele Bachmann won Iowa's quadrennial pre-caucus beauty contest known as the Ames Straw Poll.
The Minnesota congresswoman netted an impressive 4,823 votes out of the 16,892 cast by the state Republican activists who either paid a required $30 entry fee or, more commonly, had one of the GOP presidential hopefuls pay it for them -- literally buying their votes. (The candidates also paid for many participants' transportation to the event, food for the day, and an array of entertainment options.)
Among the hundreds of journalists from around the world who had gathered in Ames that day, the results prompted unbridled gushing about Bachmann's "meteoric rise" and newly earned status as the "clear favorite" to win the Iowa caucuses.
Basking in her triumph, Bachmann allowed herself to think far beyond the January caucuses on that promising, summer afternoon.
"Now it's on to all 50 states!" she shouted to the media throngs who jostled to get a glimpse of the victor.
In the end, Bachmann wouldn't even make it to New Hampshire. A day after finishing dead last in the January caucuses, in which she earned just 1,223 more votes than she had received four months earlier in Ames, Bachmann ended her campaign and became a footnote to the 2012 presidential contest.
The straw poll, long billed as the most important early barometer of the race for the Oval Office, had once again predicted nothing.
In a Wall Street Journal interview published Wednesday, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad voiced out loud what had long been clear to most observers of Republican presidential politics: "I think the straw poll has outlived its usefulness. It has been a great fundraiser for the party, but I think its days are over."
In many ways, Branstad was merely stating the obvious. After all, since the first iteration was held in 1979, the Ames Straw Poll has been won by only two candidates who went on to become the nominee the following year -- Bob Dole in 1995 and George W. Bush in 1999 -- and both of them had already been widely viewed as front-runners.
The most recent iteration not only proved useless as a predictor, it was also largely overshadowed by the much-anticipated launch of Rick Perry's campaign, which the Texas governor announced on the same day and a thousand miles away in South Carolina.
But among Iowa Republicans who have for decades relied on the poll as a lucrative one-off fundraiser -- and a key component of a statewide industry that relies upon early and intense national interest in the nominating process -- Branstad's remarks were a major affront.
"I believe the Iowa Straw Poll is possibly the best way for a presidential campaign to organize (put in place county and precinct leaders & activate them) for Iowa's First in the Nation Caucus," Iowa Republican Party Chairman A.J. Spiker posted on his Facebook page. "I think it is detrimental for any campaign to skip the opportunity presented in Ames and I disagree with Governor Branstad about ending our Iowa Straw Poll. The State GOP and the presidential campaigns will determine if there is an Ames Straw Poll come 2015." (Spiker helmed Ron Paul's 2012 campaign in the state and has clashed repeatedly in the past with establishment Republicans in Iowa.)
Proponents of the straw poll's relevance frequently point out that while the event may not predict who will win the nomination, one of its practical purposes is to winnow the field, which it did last year when former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty dropped out the day after his disappointing third-place finish.
But among many national Republicans, the outsized pomp and attention the poll receives has become anathema to the party's ultimate goals.
Increasingly, the strongest candidates have demonstrated their agreement with that assessment: The last two GOP nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney, did not even participate.
Branstad's comments were applauded as brave truth-telling by some state Republicans who themselves have had vested interests in past straw polls.
"I was proud of him for addressing the elephant in the room," longtime Iowa GOP fundraiser Becky Beach said. "The last two straw polls were just robbery from the candidates for the state party -- and remember, I raised money for that same state party."
Beach reminisced fondly about her days working for George H.W. Bush during the first straw poll 33 years ago, when the event was a lighthearted, lower-stakes affair.
"I knew last year it was dead, and we all know the importance of keeping the caucus," she said.
Indeed, the straw poll has increasingly been held up as Exhibit A by those arguing that Iowa's special status as the nation's first voting state is both an outdated relic and a usurpation of the democratic process and the interests of voters nationwide.
Branstad's criticism of the poll appeared designed in part to remove one of the arguments for revamping the Republican presidential calendar -- and perhaps one day eliminating altogether the caucuses that open the nominating process.
But as Spiker indicated in his Facebook comments, the decision to host a straw poll in 2015 will be the Iowa GOP's to make.
In the end, a compromise may be the most likely outcome of an internal dispute certain to be stretch out over the coming months and years.
"I am confident [that] through 2016, the caucuses are secure," said Iowa Republican strategist Bob Haus. "Looking longer term, Iowa leaders will have to make some adjustments, and the straw poll should figure into that equation. Coming off a year where Republicans were outhustled and totally out-organized, we should be finding ways to perfect organizational events like the straw poll rather than just eliminate them. That may mean a totally different look and feel, with the party sponsoring the event for the candidates rather than looking at it merely as a fundraising tool."
Branstad's communications director, Tim Albrecht, also suggested that a middle ground might be reached whereby the state GOP hosts an event to raise money for and awareness of the candidates but which doesn't feature a straw poll as "the primary focus."
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