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The Life And Death Of The Iowa Straw Poll, A Once Important Political Event

George W. Bush (left) stands with Elizabeth Dole and Steve Forbes, whom he defeated in the 1999 Iowa Straw Poll.
George W. Bush (left) stands with Elizabeth Dole and Steve Forbes, whom he defeated in the 1999 Iowa Straw Poll.

A once important political event, which has seen its influence diminished by pay-to-play allegations, breathed its last breath Friday morning.

State Republicans voted to kill the Iowa Straw Poll in a unanimous vote — reversing themselves from a unanimous vote in January to continue it. Amid defections by key 2016 presidential candidates and despite pledged reforms, it was no longer able to survive.

"I've said since December that we would only hold a straw poll if the candidates wanted one, and this year that is just not the case," state party Chairman Jeff Kaufmann said in a statement.

Kaufmann, who called the decision "distasteful" to those who "love" the event — it was a major million-dollar fundraiser for the party — hinted that the straw poll's reputation was having a negative influence on Iowa's position as the first presidential nominating contest.

He said the decision was "necessary to strengthen our First in the Nation status and ensure our future nominee has the best chance possible to take back the White House in 2016."

The 36-year old event, which was once an important barometer of support for any presidential hopeful ahead of the first-in-the-nation caucuses, has seen its credibility and influence diminish after disastrous results in 2011 and grumbling long before that about the money campaigns have had to spend on it. Though it was supposed to be an indicator of grass-roots support, it was hardly that. Candidates paid tens of thousands of dollars for the best placement and spent thousands more on giveaways.

This year, candidates decided they had had enough. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and even 2008 caucus winner Mike Huckabee all said they would not attend. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who leads in the polls in the early state, hadn't yet committed, as many in the state party hoped he would to give it renewed relevance.

"History will repeat itself if we don't learn from the past," Huckabee wrote in a Des Moines Register op-ed. "It's clear that pitting conservative candidates with limited resources against each other in a non-binding and expensive summer straw poll battle, while allowing billionaire-backed establishment candidates to sit out, will only wound and weaken the conservative candidates who best represent conservative and hard-working Iowans."

An event that once had meaning and came unraveled

For nearly 40 years, the straw poll had proved an important part of the GOP process and had often predicted the winner, or at least influenced the results. In the first straw poll in 1979, George H.W. Bush won the inaugural event and the Iowa caucuses. He would lose the nomination to Ronald Reagan, but he gained enough momentum to get the No. 2 slot on the ticket.

"I think the straw poll was important to the caucus process early on," said David Yepsen, a former longtime reporter and columnist with the Des Moines Register. Widely recognized as the dean of Iowa politics, he now directs the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. "I think it played a healthy organizational role. Campaigns had to get up to speed to compete, and that was organizing that paid off on caucus night."

But, Yepsen warned, "It was a victim of its own success. It got too big and really started to wield too much influence."

That's exactly what happened four years ago, when Iowa native and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann rode a Tea Party wave to a narrow first-place victory in the August straw poll. The Republican's campaign spared no expense (or famous Machine Shed cinnamon rolls) to win the symbolic gathering.

Her sweet taste of victory would be short-lived, though. She would finish a disappointing fifth in the caucuses the following January, dropping out soon after. It was former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who finished fourth in the straw poll, who would narrowly defeat former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in January. Romney didn't even compete in the event.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty had essentially staked his entire political future on the straw poll. Badly needing a boost, his campaign had run out of cash and needed to at least come in second to the surging Bachmann. Instead, he finished a distant third, behind Texas Rep. Ron Paul. He ended his campaign the next day.

After the November 2012 elections, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad called for an end to the August event. "I think the straw poll has outlived its usefulness," he told the Wall Street Journal. "It has been a great fundraiser for the party but I think its days are over."

But, as Yepsen noted, the straw poll didn't always have such ignominious results. Four years earlier, Romney spent big to win the straw poll, but it was Huckabee's surprise second-place finish that established him as the insurgent to watch. That January, he would upset Romney to win the caucuses.

In 1987, evangelical leader Pat Robertson defeated George H.W. Bush, then the incumbent vice president, at the event. He finished second in Iowa that year, behind then-Kansas Sen. Bob Dole. Robertson's campaign never made it past Iowa, but it established, for the first time, the strength of Christian-conservative voters in Iowa and the national GOP.

In 1995, Dole tied with Texas Sen. Phil Gramm in the straw poll, but he used it as a springboard to win the caucuses again and eventually earn the nomination. He would lose to President Bill Clinton, though, in the general election.

In 2000, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush overcame a strong challenge from publishing executive Steve Forbes, solidifying his place atop the GOP field.

A fix that came too late

The Iowa Republican Party had attempted to salvage the event by trying to decrease the "pay to play" stigma it had earned. A random lottery was to be used to determine prime real estate, instead of going to candidates who could shell out the most. And the the state party would provide state fair-style food instead of letting candidates woo voters with scrumptious treats.

Former Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn, who oversaw the infamous 2012 straw poll, defended the event as a useful way to show candidate strength early on this cycle, especially in a GOP field that could top 20 hopefuls.

"In many ways, given all of the national hand-wringing over what to do with a field of this size when it comes to the debate stage, one argument would be that it cries out for an August straw poll that winnows the field a bit," he argued before the decision.

Strawn said that while it's an important, but costly moneymaker for the state party every year — bringing in over seven figures normally — it also has a long-standing tradition in a state that's immensely proud of its status on the presidential nominating calendar.

"It's like a political family reunion Iowans look forward to every four or eight years," he said.

In fact, last month GOP leaders from across the state pleaded in a letter to the Des Moines Register to save the "beloved and revered" event.

"The Straw Poll is a political tradition stretching back to 1979," they wrote. "Many of us remember attending as children, or bringing our own children along while we participated in this grassroots event."

A Des Moines Register/Bloomberg survey in May, too, showed more than half of caucusgoers said it was important for a presidential candidate to attend.

As for last cycle, Strawn said the swift fall of Bachmann after the straw poll had more to do with her own campaign's problems.

"I lay a fair amount of blame at the feet of the candidate, who was unable to use her straw poll momentum," he said.

But with the fate of the storied event now sealed, Yepsen argued that putting it out of its mercy could actually help the state's influence come next year.

"I'm a believer that the purpose of the nomination process is for a party to elect a president," Yepsen said. "The end game is to win a presidential election, not a straw poll. Ending it now strengthens Iowa's position in February, because it's now the main event. The focus ought to be on the caucuses."
Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.