DES MOINES, Iowa — Targeted as a costly sideshow that ought to be retired, Iowa's Republican straw poll appears set to survive for another go as summer's favorite political circus.
Leaders of the Iowa Republican Party meet Saturday to decide the straw poll's fate. Despite the best efforts of high-profile Republicans — including influential Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad — to put it out to pasture, the event that draws thousands of Republican activists (and almost as many reporters) to the college town of Ames will likely end up with enough support to continue.
First held in 1979, the straw poll has grown from a county GOP fundraiser to an all-out event on the campus of Iowa State University. Candidates spend heavily to entertain and bus in supporters, pitching tents filled with food and entertainment near the voting area. In 2011, for example, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee jammed with a classic rock band in a tent hosted by candidate Rick Santorum.
The poll may draw only a small percentage of would-be caucus attendees, but it's viewed as an early test of a campaign's ability to organize and get out the vote. That means it could cut down the field of 2016 candidates that could number in the dozens by this summer.
"At some point you have to have these red letter dates that say you're viable or you're not," said Chuck Laudner, a former executive director of the Iowa Republican Party. "It's the first chance for Iowa caucus voters to look at these candidates head to head and test their strength."
In 2011, about 17,000 people turned out for the poll, far less than the roughly 120,000 who voted in the January 2012 caucus. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann spent $2 million on the event and won, while eventual GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney chose not to participate. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty dropped out after a third-place finish.
"With the benefit of hindsight, the amount of time, energy and money that was spent on the straw poll was not correlated to the strategic significance of the event," said GOP strategist Phil Musser, a former adviser to Pawlenty.
Iowa Republican Party Chairman Jeff Kaufmann, who said this week he has a "hunch" the poll will get the votes to continue, said it should not be taken too seriously. He said the gathering draws a small portion of the electorate and the poll just "adds flavor to a wonderful event."
Kaufmann also noted that if the poll continues, the location of Ames is not definite, saying the party will have to negotiate a rental agreement with Iowa State University.
The Republican National Committee provided the state party with an opinion Thursday that said the straw poll appears permissible under new GOP rules, but stressed the event is a fundraiser and the party must make clear that any vote is "unofficial and unscientific."
That's the problem for the poll's critics. Nick Ryan, an Iowa-based Republican strategist who advised Rick Santorum in 2012, said the former Pennsylvania senator placed fourth in the straw poll but went on to narrowly win the 2012 Republican caucuses.
"I think 2012 really did show that its importance is overstated," said Ryan. "You can pretty much say it had no effect on the caucus."
Branstad has suggested replacing the poll with a statewide event or regional gatherings. But he has also stressed that the decision ultimately lies with the state party committee and said this week that he understands "the majority want to have some kind of a straw poll or event this summer." Should that be the outcome of Saturday's vote, the next question will be which of the candidates decide to take part.
Will potential candidates with more establishment Republican backing, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Christ Christie, follow Romney's example and skip the poll? If so, that could leave only the more conservative candidates in the mix.
"The key will be who plays. I don't expect everyone to play," said Iowa Republican strategist Doug Gross. "For the socially conservative candidates, it will act as a winnowing process."