The Iowa Straw Poll was taken off life support on Friday after losing its battle with relevance. It was 36 years old.
Rather than prompt a knock-down fight between the establishment and activist wings of the Republican Party, the poll went gently into that good night, having outlived its purpose beyond which candidate had the best food or entertainment in their tent on straw-poll day.
The leadership of the Iowa Republican Party voted unanimously to put the straw poll out of it’s misery on Friday morning. After several major Republican candidates announced they were talking a pass on the straw poll this year, Iowa GOP leaders decided they didn’t want to know the answer the question: “If Ben Carson, Rick Santorum, Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina were the only candidates in the race, who would win?”
"We set the table and they didn't come to dinner," Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann said in an interview with The Des Moines Register.
But this was also a sacrifice to the Iowa Caucus gods.
The contest began as a fundraiser for the Iowa Republican Party and once upon a time, broke even when predicting the results of the Iowa caucus. In the six straw polls taken since 1979, three winners went on to win the caucus, and only one—George W. Bush—went on to win the presidency that election cycle.
But a straw poll of C-listers would likely not raise enough money for the party to justify the effort for the Iowa Republican Party, or the risk another credibility damaging winner (see: Bachmann, Michele).
J. Ann Selzer, pollster for the Des Moines Register, speculated it just wasn’t worth the trouble.
“Too many candidates would not win, place or show, so why should they bother?” she said.
But there wasn’t just one thing that killed the straw poll.
Several factors contributed to its demise.
There’s the mess that was the Iowa Caucuses in 2012, when ballots went missing before being found and recounted. Rick Santorum was crowned the winner by 34 votes, well after the ballots were cast.
"It’s one thing to devote a lot of time and energy on the straw poll when you nail the caucuses. It’s another thing when you didn't announce the correct winner on caucus night and it took weeks to figure out who actually won,” said Craig Robinson, a former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party and editor-in-chief of the Iowa Republican.
Then there were the results of the last straw poll.
In 2011, Michele Bachmann worked the state hard, stopping by all 99 counties in her bus. At rallies, she sometimes stayed for an hour afterwards just signing autographs and posing for pictures.
And for a fleeting moment, she was president… of the straw poll.
Shane Vander Hart, an Iowa-based Republican consultant and editor of Caffeinated Thoughts, noted that while the former Minnesota Congresswoman had support among Iowa evangelicals and the grassroots in the Hawkeye State, at the end of the day, it was really her air-conditioned tent, catered food and country singer Randy Travis that probably sealed the deal for her.
“She enticed quite a few people to attend with her entertainment, having Randy Travis appear to give a concert at her tent drew people that, frankly, may not have come otherwise,” he said. “She had a lot of money to spend at that point. I doubt she would have won it without Travis.”
She later finished sixth in the caucus, dropping out of the primary shortly thereafter.
Not that the 2011 straw poll was totally worthless. Defenders note it showed which candidates had the organization to marshal caucus goers to the poll.
It also weeded out the faint of heart like Tim Pawlenty, the human equivalent of beige, who bailed after he finished third in the straw poll.
Robinson, who wrote his own detailed autopsy of the straw poll here, said ultimately saving the reputation of the caucus and building back that brand was more important than the fundraiser-turned-sideshow.
“Iowa's First-in-the-Nation status is always under attack, and the problem with the 2012 caucuses underscored that the straw poll causes Iowa Republican Party staff to focus more on a fundraiser than the caucuses themselves.”