Sticking with the emerging GOP circus in Iowa for a minute, the FAMiLY Leadership Summit in Ames was a reminder that according to precedent we’d normally be anticipating the First Big Scored Event in the presidential cycle a year from now in that same city: the Iowa Republican Straw Poll.
As you may recall, a strong second-place finish in the 2007 Straw Poll make Mike Huckabee rather than Sam Brownback the Christian Right candidate in that cycle (leading to an eventual Caucus victory that royally screwed up Mitt Romney’s campaign). And in 2011, Michele Bachmann became an unlikely (and short-lived) front-runner after edging Ron Paul in Ames, while one-time Smart Money contender Tim Pawlenty was knocked right out of the race.
The inherent craziness of the event (participants are typically bused to Ames and fed box lunches by campaigns; big money is spent on securing by auction the most favorable tent locations near the arena), and the sometimes capricious results, have led to a lot of talk about killing or replacing it. One of the biggest critics has been Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, whose allies recently succeeded in retaking control of the state party apparatus from Paulites (naturally among the biggest defenders of an event determined by the ability to dominate a relatively small room via sheer mobilization of zealots). Branstad’s talked about replacing the Straw Poll with a series of regional events, maintaining the basic concept of shaking down presidential candidates by making them pour resources into a state party fundraising initiative. But it’s not a done deal yet, per this report from National Journal‘s Emily Schultheis:
Rep. Steve King, meanwhile, is a stark defender of the event. At the Iowa State Fair on Friday, King told National Journal, “The only thing that we need to scrap is the talk about there not being a straw poll….”
It should perhaps be pointed out that Ames is in King’s district. But still, he walks tall in the Iowa GOP. And his words are a reminder that it’s not just members of the Revolution who favor a big pre-Caucus media circus.
Chuck Laudner, the GOP operative who ran Santorum’s Iowa campaign in 2012, predicted that if the state party doesn’t hold an event next August, someone else will.
“If I had to look into my crystal ball, which is some days cloudy, I would say there will probably be a straw poll,” said Bob Haus, a longtime Iowa GOP operative who’s aligned with Texas Gov. Rick Perry. “But it will be in a different form somehow. It will have to be, just based on the criticisms from previous campaigns….”
“If you get rid of the straw poll, what replaces it is going to be 10 times worse,” Laudner said. “Nature will fill that void.… Instead of that straw poll, there’s going to be 10 straw polls, 20 straw polls.”
Straw poll defenders like Laudner note that, at its core, the event is a fun gathering that brings together voters who may not otherwise get involved in the campaign.
“I understand that there are some Republicans, and some candidates in particular, that don’t like it,” he said. “But that’s their problem. If you don’t like the straw poll, there’s something wrong with you—it’s just a great day.”
It’s an open question whether this “great day” could be converted into two, or three or more mini-circuses without sacrificing the media coverage that made the Straw Poll an event that was very difficult for candidates to ignore, and kept the money pouring in. You have to figure that among the probable candidates not only Rand Paul but Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum would prefer an early high-stakes contest based on mobilizing true believers that might winnow the field. But the shocking thing to realize is that if there is a Straw Poll, it’s likely less than a year away.