AMES, Iowa — Since the dawn of the Reagan era, diehard Republicans have gathered here before competitive Iowa caucus contests to cast votes in the Ames Straw Poll. The carnival-like summertime event is a major fundraiser for the state party and, at first, was a fairly accurate indicator of which Republican presidential hopeful would win the state.
But on Saturday, leaders of the state Republican Party will gather in Des Moines to consider dumping the poll altogether — and, with it, more than three decades of tradition.
The state’s longest serving governor, Terry Branstad (R), believes the event “has outlived its usefulness” and is in dire need of reform. The chief concern of Branstad and his allies is that the nonbinding poll detracts from the state’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses, where votes actually count for something. Others also worry that the straw poll narrows the field too early with too few votes.
But straw poll defenders, including conservative firebrands such as Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), say the voluntary poll gives activists the chance to meet candidates and reward those who got a jump-start on campaigning. In recent weeks, a state GOP spokesman said, party leaders have been flooded with pleas to keep the tradition alive.
King recently wrote in a letter to party leaders that opposition is “coming from those who seek the power to manipulate the outcome of the nomination by reducing the influence of the grassroots.” Others have also argued that a little winnowing of the field isn’t a bad thing.
“The vote is very significant,” said Bob Vander Plaats, president of the Family Leader, a socially conservative political organization based in Urbandale. “It tells the people of Iowa and people across the country who has organizing strength and who has early momentum.”
The Ames Straw Poll is most often described as a county fair — some go as far as to compare it to the famed Iowa State Fair — for political junkies. Even Republicans who want to see this tradition die admit it is a really fun day.
The party rents out the Hilton Coliseum at Iowa State University and then auctions off chunks of the parking lot to candidates for thousands of dollars. Candidates then spend hundreds of thousands of dollars more busing in Iowans from around the state, feeding them, entertaining them and handing them a $30 ticket required to place a vote. Hundreds of reporters show up — August can be a sleepy time for political news — and often treat the results with the same seriousness as an official primary contest.
The weather is usually brutally hot, making tents with air-conditioning especially appealing. The event has barbecue and midway-style fare, special-interest groups looking to recruit followers, country music artists who were once a big deal, and lots of free T-shirts, bumper stickers and other loot. Even before the poll results are announced, success can be judged by the number of buses each candidate rents or how many people are crammed into a tent.
“I think money has kind of distorted the whole thing,” said Gerald Retzlaff, chairman of the Jones County Republican Party in eastern Iowa, who has been to three of the six straw polls. “When we didn’t have money to taint the results, it worked quite well. But once all of that money came in, it was hard to tell what the results indicate.”
But several Republicans scoffed at the notion that Iowans only show up for the free food, noting that voters can pick whichever candidate they want — not just the one who paid for their ticket. And their favorite can change by caucus time.
“To understand the straw poll, you have to understand the mind-set of Iowans,” said William T. “Bill” Talbot, a politically active attorney who lives in Ames and is pretty certain he has been to every straw poll. “We know the presidents. . . . We vet them and work with them and we forgive them for not knowing how to campaign early on.”
For critics, the 2011 straw poll is a prime example of the event’s shortcomings. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — the eventual GOP nominee — skipped out even though he had won the poll four years earlier. Then-Gov. Rick Perry of Texas chose the same day to announce his candidacy in South Carolina, offending some Iowans who are still bitter about it.
The winner that year was now-retired Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who dumped most of her money into creating TV ads, traveling the state to rally socially conservative voters and throwing a party so popular that a long line of people waited to get inside. But that was the peak of Bachmann’s campaign: She took last place in the January 2012 caucuses.
Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty concentrated heavily on doing well in the 2011 straw poll but dropped out after finishing third. Former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania — who finished behind Pawlenty — officially won the caucuses, narrowly edging out Romney by 34 votes in a final count.
“Everyone needs to chill out about the weight and meaning of the outcome” of the straw poll, Pawlenty said in a recent interview.
Tim Albrecht, a GOP strategist in Iowa who has worked on several presidential campaigns, said that good candidates too often spend all of their money on the straw poll, only to finish third or lower and drop out.
“The straw poll prevents really high-quality candidates from making it to the caucuses where the votes of these activists really count,” he said.
Heading into Saturday’s vote, the state party requested a legal opinion from the Republican National Committee to ensure that holding a straw poll would not break any rules or threaten Iowa’s much-protected first-in-the-nation caucuses. RNC General Counsel John Ryder responded Thursday, deeming the fundraiser “an unscientific poll that cannot be reliably used as a measure of candidate strength” — and, therefore, not connected to the process of selecting a presidential nominee.
Even if the state central committee votes Saturday to begin planning a straw poll — which they are expected to do — they could make major changes to the tradition, such as changing the location, controlling costs for candidates or adding a debate. And the whole thing could still fall apart before August if not enough candidates agree to participate.
This can be an awkward, months-long negotiation between party leaders and presidential hopefuls, said Craig Robinson, a former political director for the state party who was in charge of organizing the 2007 straw poll.
For underdog candidates, it is an opportunity to catapult ahead of the others and get some national media attention. But for presumed front-runners, there is a real risk: Winning does not surprise anyone but losing to a nobody can really hurt.
“It’s an event that only really can be pulled off if the candidates decide they want to be at it,” said Robinson, who is also the founder and editor of the Iowa Republican. “There were some really dark days where you didn’t think it was going to happen.”