Knocking down the Iowa Straw Poll

By Joe Sheller / Guest Editorial

You might have missed it, but there was recently a national election in the United Kingdom. In the U.K., there are virtually no election commercials, no super PACs and a very constrained campaign season – no more than six weeks lapse between the decision to have an election and the actual voting.

As an Iowan, I’m a bit envious. We here in the Corridor know with just a cursory glance at the local news media that the election contest of 2016 is well underway. We’ve already seen Hillary Clinton at a Kirkwood Community College center in Monticello and at a business roundtable in Cedar Falls; meanwhile, a bevy of GOP candidates have been hanging out all over the state.

The GOP itself is in a big fight to keep alive its own ancillary event, the fundraiser formerly known as the “Ames Straw Poll,” which now might be dubbed “the party none of the cool kids want.”

As Campaign 2016 starts up, it’s useful to recall that the Iowa Caucuses were an accident created primarily for media consumption. As detailed in the book “The Iowa Precinct Caucuses, the Making of a Media Event” by Hugh Winebrenner and Dennis J. Goldford, we owe our first-in-the-nation status mostly to a bipartisan conspiracy in the 1970s – along with a riot in Chicago, a January blizzard and a peanut farmer/nuclear engineer.

The riot was in 1968. When Democrats gathered in Chicago that year to pick a nominee, their party was already in shambles. In March of that year, Lyndon Johnson, reeling from the impact of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, announced he would not run for re-election. Robert Kennedy, a leading contender for the nomination and brother of slain president John F. Kennedy was, like his brother, shot and killed.

That came as the anti-war movement was reaching its most vocal point. The riots – which some say were provoked by heavy-handed police action – distracted attention from the nomination of Vice President Hubert Humphry, who went on to lose a very close general election to Richard Nixon.

The Democrats vowed to change things for the next election, and the national party instituted a whole slew of new rules. In those pre-computer days, the Iowa party wondered how it would have time to comply, and in 1972, Democrats in the state caucused in January – not so much to outflank the New Hampshire primary, but mostly to give themselves time to comply with the new party procedures.

That’s when the blizzard struck. R.W. Apple, a prominent political writer for the New York Times, was stranded for three days in Des Moines, with nothing to do but file dispatches about the Iowa event and the strong showing of the most liberal candidate in the field: Sen. George McGovern, of neighboring South Dakota. Besides the Times, the caucus was also played up in 1972 by the Des Moines Register, then a more prominent statewide news outlet than it is today.

Call us corny, but Iowa politicians can be crafty. Sensing opportunity, both parties agreed that they would have early caucuses in the next presidential election year, 1976. Jimmy Carter, a former governor, nuclear engineer and peanut farmer from Plains George, took note and campaigned hard in Iowa, earning a bump that eventually propelled him to the White House.

And thus a media frenzy was born. While the presidential election year nomination competition is sometimes a yawn (Republicans in 1984; Democrats in 2012), Iowa remains ground zero for the start of this important national event.

Which brings us to what used to be called the “Ames Straw Poll.” Started in 1979, the Iowa GOP had the idea for a summer fundraising party, a picnic-barbecue with a sort of political beauty contest attached.

Given the nature of the event – people buying tickets, no check of voting eligibility, supporters sometimes bused in from neighboring states – it’s a bit surprising that the news media ever made a fuss about the (now) Iowa Straw Poll. Still, it’s the first skirmish in the long war that leads to the GOP nomination for president.

But while the Iowa Straw Poll has generated its share of headlines over the years, this year feels different. The 2015 poll isn’t in Ames, but has been relocated to Boone. That must have offended the spirits of the political world, because the poll seems to have lost its luster. Mike Huckabee is the latest Republican candidate to say “no thanks” to the event.

I can’t help but feel that the fading of traditional media might have something to do with the fading of the straw poll. There’s nobody and nothing with the kind of influence that R.W. Apple or the Des Moines Register had in 1972, so a faux contest that appeals mostly to the media’s obsession with horse race election coverage seems passé.

Maybe the GOP needs a good blizzard. True, the Boone picnic is in August, but given how crazy the weather has been this year, it could very well happen.



Joe Sheller is associate professor of communication and journalism with Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids. He can be reached at [email protected].