The PJ Tatler

Should Iowa End the Ames Straw Poll?

Five-term governor Terry Branstad thinks so. But the chairman of the state Republican party doesn’t.


A major staple of the Republican presidential nominating process — the straw poll of Republicans at the Iowa State University in Ames — could go by the wayside if Iowa’s GOP governor gets his way.

Gov. Terry Branstad, who’s currently serving his fifth term as governor of the Hawkeye State, told the Wall Street Journal that the straw poll was no longer relevant.

The governor’s comments earned a rebuke from the chairman of the state Republican party.

“I believe the Iowa Straw Poll is possibly the best way for a presidential campaign to organize (put in place county and precinct leaders & activate them) for Iowa’s First in the Nation Caucus,” said A.J. Spiker, the party chairman. “I think it is detrimental for any campaign to skip the opportunity presented in Ames and I disagree with Governor Branstad about ending our Iowa Straw Poll.”

The straw poll has more often offered a glimpse of candidates’ organizational strength in Iowa, which traditionally hosts the first nominating contest in a presidential contest, than a good predictor of the nominee. Candidates often spend thousands (if not more) on courting votes in the straw poll, hosting elaborate barbecues and musical acts in hopes of emerging from the event with a burst of strength.

But the winner hasn’t always gone onto the nomination. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann won the straw poll this summer, earning a boomlet for her longshot bid for the nomination that fizzled weeks thereafter. Mitt Romney, the eventual Republican presidential nominee, didn’t participate in the straw poll (though he stopped at the state fair during the same weekend); he lost the Iowa caucuses to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum by just a few votes, despite not having campaigned in the state.

The straw poll was useful in raising money for the state party, who charged exorbitant amounts to candidates just to enjoy the privilege of participating. But beyond that, Branstad is right. The poll is not useful as a gauge of electability, or even of popularity. It may say something about organization and the ability to raise enough money to bus thousands of your supporters to the venue. But there have been many a candidate good at raising money who ended up losing (Hillary Clinton being the most recent.).

Anything to shorten the campaign season would be a welcome change.