The New, Sort of Improved, Iowa Straw Poll

In the somewhat unusual venue of Politico Magazine, Iowa GOP chairman Jeff Kaufmann announced some changes in the hallowed traditions of the Iowa Straw Poll, traditionally the first scorable “contest” of the presidential nominating process on the Republican side, beyond its relocation from Ames to Boone.

For the most part, these changes are aimed at features of the event that promoted the impression of an unfair advantage for deep pockets (or more realistically, a bonus for campaigns willing to make this event a huge priority). They won’t auction off tent space any more; locations will be assigned by lottery. Food will be supplied by outside vendors, not the campaigns. The bucolic location at Boone means plenty of parking, so the campaigns don’t have to bus everybody in.

But Kaufmann oversells the changes:

Simply put, it is time to relegate the pay-to-play nature of the Iowa Straw Poll to the dustbin of history. (We’ll leave the “pay to play” politics to the Clintons.) [yuk, yuk]. Here in Iowa, so long as a Republican candidate can afford the plane ticket to Iowa, they are welcome in Boone on August 8.

Yeah, well, except that campaigns will still be under pressure to buy tickets for people to attend the event, so the deep pockets will still matter. That won’t change, of course, because this is, after all, the principle fundraiser of the cycle for the state party.

As to the motivation for this announcement–and perhaps its placement in the political junkieland–WaPo’s Jose DelReal offers a plausible explanation:

The chair of the Iowa Republican Party on Thursday announced major changes to the Iowa Straw Poll, part of an aggressive play to salvage the event’s role in GOP presidential politics amid persistent questions about its purpose and usefulness.

The high-profile Republican cattle-call has seen its reputation wane in recent years as campaigns and reporters alike have criticized the high costs associated with attending — not to mention the outcome’s tendency to favor candidates with big base appeal, but little mass appeal….

The announcement follows reports that several major candidates have considered skipping the event altogether, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush.

So the Iowa GOP is trying to preempt media criticism and perhaps even editorial decisions to downplay the event, while undercutting campaigns that don’t want to compete in the Straw Poll for various reasons but may use its cost or unsavory nature as an excuse to stay away.

I’m reasonably sure Jeb Bush’s campaign will be able to afford to bid for a tent and bring in world-class cuisine and entertainment and buy a fleet of buses to get people to Boone. So the main effect of these changes on Team Jeb may simply be to send them into overdrive to find a credible scheduling conflict. If anybody in Bush’s family is thinking about getting married, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they’ve decided an August 8 wedding would be great, though let’s hope it’s not in South Florida.

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.