Iowa Republicans ending straw poll, a tradition born in 1979

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Posted: Jun 12, 2015 2:26 PM
Iowa Republicans ending straw poll, a tradition born in 1979

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The Iowa Republican straw poll, once a staple campaign event for GOP presidential candidates, is vanishing because of waning interest from 2016 hopefuls.

The governing board for the Republican Party of Iowa voted unanimously during a private conference call Friday to drop the event, said state GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann. It was scheduled to be held in the central Iowa city of Boone on Aug. 8.

Republican officials wanted to make sure negativity surrounding the straw poll didn't hurt Iowa's traditional place in holding the first votes of the presidential nomination contest, with its leadoff caucuses. Kaufmann said he was particularly concerned that GOP candidates were feeling unnecessary pressure to participate in the event.

"You spend more time gaming your own candidates rather than worrying about Hillary Clinton," he said, referring to the Democratic Party's front-runner for the presidential nomination. "That's not how a first-in-the-nation state acts. A first-in-the-nation state has to roll out the welcome mat."

Since 1979, the straw poll has been held every summer before a contested presidential caucus and grew from a county fundraiser to a splashy event where candidates spent lavishly to bus in and entertain supporters. While the carnival-like event is beloved by Iowa's political activists, critics say it has become a costly sideshow, and many candidates fear the humiliation of a poor showing.

For years, the poll has been considered an early but unreliable test of strength in presidential campaigns. In the six polls conducted since its first year, the winner has gone on to win the state caucuses three times. The eventual Republican nominee has won the poll only twice.

An indication of the poll's demise this year was the reluctance of 2016 GOP hopefuls to commit to attending it. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham were among those who said they would skip the event. Others said they would not spend money to participate.

Jimmy Centers, a spokesman for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, said the state party officials "made a decision based on what they believed was best" for the party and the caucuses.

In fact, Branstad was a leading proponent of ending the straw poll. He said in December the event was a turnoff for many candidates and could diminish the impact of the caucuses. "The most important thing is to keep the Iowa precinct caucuses first in the nation and the first real test of strength of candidates," he said then.

State party officials debated the event's future in January but at that point decided to keep it. In an effort to appease concerns, the officials told candidates they would no longer have to bid up to $35,000 for space to pitch tents at the event.

In 2011, about 17,000 people turned out for the poll, far fewer than the roughly 120,000 who voted in the January 2012 caucuses. Candidate Michele Bachmann spent $2 million on the straw poll and won, but she left the race after a poor showing in the Iowa caucuses. The eventual GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, did not participate in the straw poll.

Still, Kaufmann didn't rule out a return to the straw poll in coming years, if party activists want it and if candidates will come.

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This story corrects the GOP chairman's last name.