Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won the 2007 Iowa Straw Poll but lost the Republican nomination for president. This year, though his name is on the ballot, he is not actively working to bring supporters to the event (AP PHOTO).
Before coming to work at KXAN here in Austin, I was a reporter in Iowa during the last presidential election cycle. A veteran journalist from my previous market told me the Iowa Straw Poll was a way to “trim the fat” in the Republican race for the White House.
This year’s event in Ames has the same intention, but some political-types wonder how important such a show has become since it emerged in 1979. While it gives a decent indication of how the GOP field will fan out, its results are often hazy and less crucial to some of the heaviest hitters in recent years.
Candidates who don’t fare well in this mock election – also called the Ames Straw Poll – often drop out, though some people will tell you it’s flawed and unrealistic to the bigger race. Critics are quick to point out the event’s low turnout, saying it doesn’t truly represent all Iowans.
And another controversy – campaigns use their money to “buy votes” – $30 tickets for potential voters on the Iowa State University campus – spreading out under massive tents and booths like what you might see at the state fair. It’s also a way for the Republican Party of Iowa to raise money with ticket sales and tent space.
Still, others say it’s the best method for voters to gauge a campaign’s strength, as they must attract supporters to the poll in the first place.
This year, there will be nine choices on the ballot:
- Michele Bachmann, U.S. Congresswoman from Minnesota
- Herman Cain, former Godfather’s Pizza CEO
- Newt Gingrich, former U.S. House speaker
- Jon Huntsman, former Utah governor
- Thaddeus McCotter, U.S. Congressman from Michigan
- Ron Paul, U.S. Congressman from Texas
- Tim Pawlenty, former Minnesota governor
- Mitt Romney, former Massachusetts governor
- Rick Santorum, former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania.
The effectiveness of the Iowa Straw Poll is under question by some lately, partly because a few of the well-known candidates aren’t really taking an active part in the poll. In 2008, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani steered clear. And now, Romney – who won the event in 2008 but lost the GOP nomination – and Huntsman are not making too many efforts to push supporters to Ames, even though their names are on the ballot.
Still, Iowa Republicans are drawing as much attention to this year’s event as possible by holding a nationally televised debate on Thursday – just two days before the straw poll.
And for the time in the event’s history, voters will be able to write in any names they like. Let’s not forget former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who could shake things up when she visits Iowa on Sept. 3. And there’s always Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who seems to be swarming in attention yet remains undeclared – a little late in the game compared to his potential opponents.
But media reports on Monday suggested Perry would make his presidential intentions clear on Saturday in South Carolina ahead of a separate stop in New Hampshire – both key states on the campaign trail. It comes as no surprise such a move would happen on the same day as the Iowa Straw Poll… a way for Perry to steal the spotlight from the event’s winner, the likely Republican to beat for the nomination (by the way, he’s planning a trip to Iowa in the days to follow the straw poll).
So, while it’s an important indicator, the Iowa Straw Poll certainly doesn’t guarantee anything. Take a look at its history:
George H.W. Bush won the first Iowa Straw Poll, but Ronald Reagan won the Republican nomination. Keep in mind, the poll had lower voter turnout in the beginning.
Pat Robertson won the Iowa Straw Poll. But Bob Dole, who finished second in the poll, won the Iowa Caucus. Still, neither man won the Republican nomination that election cycle. That designation, not to mention the presidency, went to George H.W. Bush, who finished third in the poll.
Bob Dole and Phill Gramm tied for first place in the Iowa Straw Poll. Dole won the Republican nomination.
George W. Bush won the Iowa Straw Poll and the presidential election. His main Republican threat after the poll was John McCain. He had poor results at the event because he didn’t declare his candidacy until September, which was a month after the straw poll. Because of their own low votes, Lamar Alexander and Dan Quayle both dropped out of the race directly after the event, with Elizabeth Dole and Pat Buchanan within the month after (Buchanan ended up continuing his campaign as a Reform Party candidate).
Romney won the Iowa Straw Poll but failed to get the Republican nomination. Two months before the straw poll, McCain and Giuliani both announced they would bypass the event. The Republican Party of Iowa included their names anyway. McCain finished second to last but continued his campaign and eventually won the GOP nomination.