Fact Check: Has the Iowa Straw Has Been an Accurate Indicator of Success?

IowaThe much-discussed Iowa Straw Poll dominated the news last week.  At it’s quarterly meeting on Saturday, the Republican Party of Iowa’s State Central Committee voted unanimously to once again hold the event in August.  The vote came a few days after a legal opinion from the Republican National Committee’s legal counsel concluded that the event did not violate any RNC rules in any way.

Over the past few months, the national media once again went out of its way to discredit the event.  The most frequent criticism was that the event is not an accurate indicator of who will win the Republican nomination or even fare well in the Iowa Caucuses.

Nobody has ever claimed that the Iowa Straw Poll was an indicator of who will win the Republican nomination.  Heck, not even the caucuses are known for doing that.  What the Straw Poll and the caucuses have done so well over their history is winnow the field of candidates.   This allows the other early states to choose from a much narrower field of candidates, and that’s not a bad thing.  In fact, with fewer debates as a result of new RNC rules, the media and voters alike will be clamoring for something to help narrow what could be a crowded field of GOP presidential candidates.

Even though Michele Bachmann flamed out after winning the Straw Poll in 2011, it’s not fair to suggest that the event doesn’t give us a glimpse of what to expect in the caucuses.  If you take out Bachmann and Phil Gramm’s first place finishes in 2011 and 1995 respectively, the Straw Poll has actually been a solid indicator of what’s going on in Iowa in advance of the caucuses.

The media seems to think that the only way for the Straw Poll to be legitimate is if the winner of the event goes on to win the caucuses.  The truth is that, in the six Straw Polls that have been conducted over the years, the candidates who finished first and second in Ames finished first or second in the caucuses four times.

Phil Gramm’s implosion in 1995 was a result of the fact that he got beat by Pat Buchannan in the Louisiana caucuses that occurred before the Iowa caucuses that year.  The loss killed Gramm’s chances in Iowa.  Pat Buchannan, who finished third in Ames in 1995, beat Gramm in the Louisiana caucuses and finished second in Iowa. I would say that from 1979 through 2007, the Iowa Straw Poll has been extremely accurate in predicting a candidate’s Iowa success.  It’s not the Straw Poll’s fault that Gramm made a poor decision in playing in Louisiana.

So what about 2011?  First, the last two Straw Polls have seen the national frontrunners not participate, which is one of the big problems the Iowa GOP must fix.  Second, the field of candidates in the past two presidential election cycles has remained turbulent until after the Straw Poll.  Fred Thompson jumped into the race after the 2007 Straw Poll, and Texas Governor Rick Perry jumped into the race on the same day as the 2011 Straw Poll.  Every time a formidable candidate either drops out or joins the race, it’s going to shake things up.

What about Bachmann?  Bachmann’s first place finish in Ames and her sixth place finish in the caucuses is also problematic for the Iowa GOP.  Bachmann treated Ames just like it was an actual primary.  Forget the fact that she had a huge tent, country music acts, and state fair food because that stuff doesn’t tell you how she won.  The Bachmann campaign spent a ton of money on direct mail, telemarketing, and radio and TV ads all in an effort to boost turnout for Ames.

The Bachmann plan worked because her competition in Ames was rather weak.  Tim Pawlenty provided the most serious challenge to Bachmann in Iowa at the time.  Not only did Bachmann kill him in a Fox News debate just days before the Straw Poll, but everyone and their brother knew that Pawlenty’s campaign was in serious trouble.  It’s hard to believe now, but Michele Bachmann was running the most legitimate campaign in Iowa in August of 2011.

Bachmann’s demise in Iowa occurred because after the event, she turned into a diva, which was on full display in Waterloo the day after the Straw Poll.  The fact that Bachmann exhausted all of her resources in Ames combined with her repeated gaffes that fall explains why the campaign’s fundraising dried up.  The Bachmann campaign was counting on a huge bounce out of Ames, not in just polling, but in her grassroots organization and fundraising.  Instead of a bounce, it was a thud.  It also didn’t help that Bachmann’s Iowa Campaign Chairman, publicly quit her campaign right before the caucuses.  Like her campaign, the ordeal with Kent Sorenson turned into a soap opera.

Even with Bachmann’s demise after August, the 2011 Straw Poll showed that Ron Paul was a legitimate candidate in Iowa.  Paul finished second in Ames. People never acknowledge how significant his showing was that day because the focus has always been on Bachmann.  I bet most Iowans wouldn’t believe that Ron Paul received more votes in the 2011 Straw Poll than Romney garnered in Ames four years earlier.  Paul finished third in the caucuses, but with an impressive 21 percent of the vote.  Paul’s finish was not a surprise on caucus night because we saw his strength in Ames.  The surprise was Santorum, the 4th place finisher in Ames, who caught fire in the final weeks before the caucuses.

The Iowa Straw Poll has its downside, but the argument that it is not an early indicator of a candidate’s success in Iowa is just wrong.  In 1999, the Straw Poll was a contest between George W. Bush and Steve Forbes, a precursor to the caucuses that would follow.  In 2007, Straw Poll was a battle between Romney and Huckabee.  The same two candidates battled it out for the caucuses.

Bachmann’s demise shouldn’t diminish the storied history of the Iowa Straw Poll.  Even if the national frontrunner avoids the event in 2016, the event will once again provide us an indication as to who are the real contenders in Iowa and who are simply pretenders.

One final thought.  Perhaps the best salesperson for the Iowa Straw Poll is it’s most famous victor, President George W. Bush.  He is what he had to say about the event.

Two months ago, when my Iowa supporters convinced me to participate in this straw poll, some pundits said I had nothing to gain and potentially a lot to lose.  Well thanks to you, we gained a lot.  We have accomplished what we set out to do.  We jump-started our grassroots organization for the main event, the Iowa caucuses.  Today was also a great day for the Republican Party of Iowa.  There is a new energy in this state, there is a new enthusiasm in this state.  And this new energy will help Republicans take back the White House in the year 2000.

The winner today was not just George W. Bush.  It was the Republican Party and our great ideas.  It was the democratic process.  This is a great festival of democracy that we participated in today.  I want you to know this is just the beginning.  I have a lot of work to do.  But the victory in Iowa put me on the road to earning the nomination of the Republican Party.

George W. Bush
August 14, 1999