Straw Poll To Go Ahead In Lieu of Possible Substitute

So despite Gov. Terry Branstad’s statement late in 2012 that the Ames Straw Poll had “outlived its usefulness,” just about everybody’s predicting it will go on much as before once the board of the Republican Party of Iowa votes on it tomorrow morning. Some detractors of the event had apparently argued that the event might run afoul of RNC rules, but an official memo from the RNC General Counsel indicated otherwise. But according to the Des Moines Register‘s Jennifer Jacobs, GOP sentiment had already shifted in favor of keeping the Straw Poll:

[A] groundswell of GOP cheerleading for the event, including from U.S. Rep. Steve King, shifted its fate. Republicans familiar with how hard it is to raise money for the party have pointed out that it has grossed over $1 million each time since 1999. It brought in $1.5 million before expenses in 2011, including the proceeds from the Fox News debate two days earlier. The net was close to half of the revenue.

A combination of Steve King’s opinion and hard cold cash is indeed difficult to beat. But here’s what may be the less visible but most powerful factor:

[T]here was fear in some quarters that if there were no straw poll, a religious conservative-oriented event would fill the void.

By sheer coincidence, I happened upon a press release from Bob Vander Plaat’s famous Family Leader organization yesterday detailing that Christian Right group’s plans for 2015, and saw this little item:

Saturday, August 15: The Family Leadership Summit (Ames, IA)

That’s the group’s annual meeting, timed and placed to coincide pretty closely with the Straw Poll–and potentially acting as a substitute.

Now you might object to the attention I’m paying to the Straw Poll as an unofficial event with no binding effect on Iowa delegates or anything else other than media perceptions. But the reality is that the event affects everything else that happens in Iowa on the Republican side in 2015, and its perpetuation ensures that anybody who wants to play in the Caucuses has to make some very firm plans–even if it’s to skip Ames–earlier than would otherwise be the case.

As for the impact of the Straw Poll, Josh Putnam of FrontloadingHQ has the best brief analysis:

No, Ames is not decisive. No, Ames is not predictive of what will happen later in caucuses. Ames is a winnowing contest. It may not weed out a frontrunner, for instance, but it is part of the process in the lead up to primary season — the invisible primary — that finds an often robust field of candidates shrunk down to a decreasing number of players. Ames winnowed Lamar Alexander in 2000, Sam Brownback in 2008 and Tim Pawlenty in 2012. It claims its victims, but so do other events as well as just plain old poor campaigns/candidates.

From the selfish POV of a political writer, Ames also “matters” because it’s a crazy circus where conservatives tend to let their freak flags fly, in the closed precincts of very expensive tents brimming with food and drink and music. It may be the closest thing we have to what national political conventions were like in the nineteenth century. I’m going to make every effort to be there this year.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.