The stakes will be higher in 2011.
In addition to the straw poll Aug. 13, Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Matt Strawn announced Dec. 16 the party is teaming with Fox News to host a straw poll debate Aug. 11. Both events will be on the Iowa State University campus in Ames. Aug. 11 also is the first day of the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines.
“Presidential candidates cannot underestimate the importance of a good showing in Iowa,” Strawn said. “This is the first true test of support in the presidential nominating cycle. Candidates who perform well here will enjoy a national boost in support.”
Strawn emphasized the opportunity campaigns gain by participating in the poll. It’s a two-way street: the straw poll has become the party’s largest fundraiser. Tickets to the 2007 straw poll, which attracted approximately 33,000 people, sold for $35. In 1999, nearly 23,000 tickets were sold at $25 each.
Strawn didn’t mention the fundraising aspect, but said the straw poll, now paired with a nationally televised debate, will be an “incredible tool for presidential campaigns to test their organization here in Iowa.”
It is a “good, early test” of a candidate’s organizational strength, agreed University of Iowa political scientist Tim Hagle, who is involved in the GOP. “But the straw poll is mainly about raising money for the Republican Party of Iowa.”
The straw poll can either launch or doom a candidate, he said.
“Lots of candidates who have done poorly there have dropped out of the race and a few (Mike Huckabee in 2007) did surprisingly well there, which energized their campaigns,” Hagle said.
Huckabee, who spent a fraction of the reported $2,200-a-vote favorite Mitt Romney spent on the straw poll, finished a distant second, but got the biggest bounce from the poll because he finished well ahead of other social conservatives. He went on to win the precinct caucuses in January 2008.
There has been speculation based on strong conservative showings in the 2010 election that moderate Republicans not compete in Iowa.
Without directly speaking to that, Strawn said the party wanted to make sure the 2011 straw poll “is bigger and better and more prominent than ever before.”
With the two-for of a debate and the straw poll, he said, it would be difficult for a candidate to pass up the “opportunity to address not just Iowa caucus-goers and straw poll attendees, but to address the nation in a presidential debate.”
Likewise, he said, it would be risky for a candidate to come for the debate, but skip the straw poll.
“A candidate would have to think long and hard about how that would look in the eyes of your Iowa caucus-going Republican,” he said.
There are details to be worked out, Strawn said, including whether the field of debate participants – most who are paid Fox contributors –will be limited.