Some of the Republican Party's most prominent 2016 presidential candidates have said they won't participate in the Iowa Straw Poll in August - so what's the point in holding it?
That's the question the Iowa GOP will debate on Friday, when the party's central committee holds a conference call to determine whether to scrap an event that's cherished by conservative activists in Iowa but increasingly criticized by Republicans inside and outside the state. The call was first reported by the Des Moines Register.
The poll, which has been held every election cycle since 1979 without a Republican incumbent in the White House, serves as an early gauge of grassroots enthusiasm about the candidates in the GOP bullpen. Proponents say that the event can help winnow the field with its preliminary read on Iowa's GOP electorate. And the event has been a huge moneymaker for the state party: it sells tens of thousands of tickets ($30 per person this year), and it used to auction off space for the candidates at the event - those willing to pay the most won the best real estate. But this year organizers did away with the auctions and several other features that made the event prohibitively expensive for candidates.
Opponents, though, say the poll has damaged Iowa's reputation nationally by elevating fringe figures with little chance of winning the caucuses, let alone the nomination or the presidency. They worry that the poll could be used as an argument for stripping Iowa of its first-in-the-nation nominating contest.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee have all said they won't spend money to compete in the straw poll this year. All three men are near the top of the GOP pack in early national polls, and Huckabee actually won the Iowa caucuses in the 2008 cycle. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who leads early surveys of the Iowa GOP electorate, has been coy on the question of whether he'll compete in the straw poll, saying he'll make up his mind after he formally declares his candidacy.
One member of the Iowa GOP's central committee told CBS News that it was understandable that candidates might be reluctant to participate, saying, "If you were a major national political consultant for one of these campaigns, would you really advise your candidate to show up in a corn field in Iowa in August with everything on the line and no opportunity to possibly come up with number one?"
If enough contenders opt out, it might finally mean the end of a quadrennial tradition that was already beginning to feel a little worn by the 2012 election. "Part of the calculus is candidates that are willing to participate," a second committee member, John Thompson, told CBS News. "Without their assistance it may be a net loss for the party."
One influential Iowa Republican predicted to CBS News that the committee would vote to kill the poll. A second pegged the likelihood that it will be scrapped at "60-40."
Don't write an obituary yet, though: Both of the committee members with whom CBS News spoke said they'd like to see the straw poll continue. One member suggested several colleagues feel the same way, saying, "I've talked to at least a third of the governing board, and they were leaning [toward keeping the poll]." But the member also acknowledged the criticism the event has absorbed in recent years: "It used to be a low- dollar event...It was always intended to be a time for party activists to come together...[I]t has become 'How much money does this campaign put in to bring this many people here?'"
"It somehow got corrupted along the way. I don't know how we step back, and that will be an answer I'm looking for tomorrow - how do we slow down this gigantic media event? And to be really honest, I'm not sure we know," the member explained. "If we pull the plug, we've allowed the media, the public sentiment...to come into play...On the other hand, we don't want to have a total failure on our hands either."
Those arguments have grown louder in recent years. In the wake of Mitt Romney's loss to President Obama in the last election, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad told the Wall Street Journal that he thought the straw poll had "outlived its usefulness." Right-wing activists in the state saw that as a sign that Branstad would work behind the scenes to kill the poll, and, they contend, that's exactly what he did.
Steve Deace, a prominent Iowa radio host with a large conservative following, told CBS News the plot to kill the poll was set in motion when Branstad successfully wrested control of the state party from an alliance of libertarians and evangelicals and installed the current state GOP chairman, Jeff Kaufmann.
"They already killed the straw poll," Deace said. "It's been dead from the moment they took over."
The central committee voted 16-0 to keep the straw poll in January, but since then, a number of changes have been announced, including moving the poll from its longtime site in Ames, Iowa to a different, outdoor site in Boone. The changes, Deace argued, made the poll a less attractive option for candidates, and so they're simply choosing to opt out.
"That thing they want to do in Boone is not a straw poll, it's a boondoggle," he said. "This whole thing's been a joke all along, and the candidates called them on it and said, 'If you guys don't know what you're doing, why are we gonna spend millions of dollars to compete?'"
Those millions of dollars were among most obvious reasons to hold the straw poll in recent cycles. "By far the biggest fundraiser cash cow this party has had, and maybe any state party in America has ever had, is the Iowa straw poll," Deace said.
Now that the poll's future is uncertain, the radio host added, the state GOP is trying to avoid being blamed for the loss of a huge fundraising opportunity.
"They don't want it, but they can't be seen killing the biggest cash cow they've got," he said. "They're looking for a scapegoat now because they don't want to be seen as the people who popped a cap in the goose that laid the golden egg...Jeff Kaufmann should be proud. He and Branstad got what they wanted, and now they can live with the headlines."
Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers denied that the governor has been engineering a campaign to kill the straw poll in an interview with CBS News.
"I've seen the governor encourage the candidates to come to all events in Iowa, including the Iowa straw poll," Centers said.
Asked about Branstad's earlier comments disparaging the poll, the spokesman explained, "That was his opinion in 2012, but this is not a decision made by the governor. This is a state party function."
"His utmost priority was and still is to protect Iowa's first in the nation caucus," Centers said. "The governor supports the straw poll. When the committee decided to move forward with it in January, he agreed to participate, and he's encouraging candidates to do the same. If the Republican Party decides to move away from the straw poll, the governor will continue to support them."
Perhaps the most common knock on the straw poll is that it's a sideshow - it can propel candidates with little national viability to the fore of the race in Iowa, while undermining candidates who could be real contenders. The result, critics argue, is that Iowan voters have less clout in picking the nominee.
"It's a lovely historical artifact, and a wonderful tradition, but its lack of predictive power and its ability to skew the field for a few crucial weeks has led to nothing but trouble in the last few cycles," GOP strategist Rick Wilson told CBS News. "I don't think most Republican candidates today view it in the same way it was viewed a decade ago."
Branstad himself made a similar argument during his interview with the Journal in 2012. The governor pointed to the 2011 victory of Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, a conservative firebrand who won the straw poll only to watch her momentum evaporate by the time the caucuses came around. She placed sixth in Iowa and dropped out shortly thereafter.
"You saw what happened the last time," Branstad said. "I don't think candidates will spend the time or money to participate in a straw poll if they don't see any real benefit coming out of it."
Wilson suggested Bachmann's 2011 victory all but sealed the fate of the quadrennial event.
"She was an unsustainable candidate at the end of the day, and the straw poll gave her some oxygen that kept her in the race and frankly led to a sense of volatility in the GOP race," he argued.
Bachmann's win "clearly gave the other side the argument they wanted to have," Deace conceded, but he also pointed out it's not always the eccentric figures who win the straw poll. "Until last year, our past winners were people named Bush, Romney, and Dole. That's the establishment!"
Given how crowded the field is this year, some argue the straw poll could have some utility beyond raking in the bucks.
"If we ever needed a midterm exam to see where candidates were at, it might be the year we have 16 candidates," Deace said. "This would have been the year, if the straw poll was done as it was always done, that it was not some fundraising shakedown - that it actually has political benefits for the party."
"With such a strong and large filed of candidates there has never been a more important time to winnow the field," agreed Thompson, the Iowa GOP committee member. "The last two Republican nominees skipped the straw poll but won the nomination. However, they did not win the election. This is a test of the caliber of a candidate."
Not everyone is convinced of that.
"The dirty little secret that everyone in the game knows is that it's no longer what it was," Wilson said. "A lot of people won't come out and publicly say this, but there will be a big sigh of relief from a lot of candidates if they won't have to spend seven days eating fried food and kissing rings."