Iowa straw poll is doomed: Even Mike Huckabee won't participate in this fundraising scam

The beloved (and meaningless) summer tradition is now on life support

Published May 21, 2015 5:11PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Brian Snyder)
(Reuters/Brian Snyder)

It wasn't much of a surprise when Jeb Bush announced that he wouldn't participate in the Iowa straw poll, the the flagship fundraising event in the Iowa Republican Party's quadrennial extortion cycle. He wasn't going to win it, he doesn't need to win it, and it might be bad even if he did win it, since the last winner of the Iowa Straw Poll was President Michele Bachmann.

One hopes that the Iowa Republican Party was wise enough not to expect Jeb Bush to participate. Sure, they want Jeb Bush's money -- who doesn't! -- but at least Jeb's non-participation gave them a chance to warn the other candidates: if you don't participate in the Straw Poll, you'll be a snob, just like Jeb Bush. The chair of the Iowa GOP, Jeff Kaufmann, took to Twitter shortly after Bush's announcement to do just that, and to explain that his excuse about being too busy at the RedState gathering in August didn't wash:

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What's going much harder for Kaufmann to dismiss, however, is the latest cancellation. Mike Huckabee, runner-up in the 2007 straw poll, announced that he also won't participate this year in a Des Moines Register column today. Huckabee has credibility with the Iowa grassroots, so he didn't even bother to come up with an excuse about how he'd be out of town. He straight-up explains that the Straw Poll is a bullshit waste of money. He also made the terribly taboo observation that declining to participate in every fundraiser for the Iowa Republican Party does not mean that you hate all Iowans and their Heartland values.

Huckabee spins his argument, as Republican presidential primary contenders are wont to do, by just saying the word "conservative" over and over.

Conservative and hard-working Iowans want a strong and principled conservative Republican nominee for president who represents their values. I have concluded this year's Iowa straw poll will serve only to weaken conservative candidates and further empower the Washington ruling class and their hand-picked candidates.

History will repeat itself if we don't learn from the past. It's clear that pitting conservative candidates with limited resources against each other in a non-binding and expensive summer straw poll battle, while allowing billionaire-backed establishment candidates to sit out, will only wound and weaken the conservative candidates who best represent conservative and hard-working Iowans.

Wipe away the jargon and his point is essentially correct. Candidates without much money, who need to make something happen, spend a lot of money to win the Straw Poll. If they lose, like Tim Pawlenty did in 2011, they've expended their limited resources and may be forced to drop out prematurely. If they win, like Michele Bachmann did in 2011, there's no indication that this has any bearing on the outcome of the caucuses in January. (And yes, Huckabee's column is also a tacit admission that he's not going to have a whole lot of money to work with this time around.)

Huckabee's move could open the damn for other conservatives to drop out as well.

There was a big debate earlier this year with the party about whether to keep the straw poll, now that candidates get the joke. Maybe Kaufmann should have listened to those figures, like Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who called for its elimination. The party has a great big embarrassment on its hands now and will have to work hard to cover its investment. Kaufmann announced some changes to cut costs for candidates a few weeks ago in a comical column that also promised reporters access to air conditioning and the best wifi the Hawkeye State has to offer. It wasn't enough. Establishment candidates won't want to participate because it's not worth setting up expectations over something so small, and now "grassroots" candidates like Huckabee can viably argue that the straw poll is a stealth tool of the establishment to drain the upstarts of their limited resources.

The Iowa GOP will find a way to get some candidates to compete, sure, just because there are so many of them. But right now? Here's what things are looking like:

So far, the most concrete commitment is from New York entrepreneur and TV star Donald Trump, who has said he'll compete in the straw poll if he decides to join the race.


By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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