DES MOINES, Iowa — This isn’t the first time Republicans have tried to bail on the Iowa straw poll.
Calls for the elimination of the election-year tradition based in Ames, Iowa, could be heard after the eventual Republican presidential nominee was defeated in 2008. And 1996. And 1992.
“There have always been questions — ‘Why bother? What’s the point?’” said Barbara Trish, chairwoman of the political science department at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa. “This is part of a process of a party trying to figure out what it’s going to do next.”
The difference in 2012 is that the charge is being led not by political analysts or campaign hacks but by Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican who reiterated his opposition to the event at a news conference here Monday. Mr. Branstad says the straw poll needs to be shelved in part because “it’s not representative.”
“Clearly the results have shown that in recent times because the people that won the straw poll have not won the [Iowa] caucuses,” Mr. Branstad said. “The caucuses are what’s most important, and that’s what I want to keep the focus on is keeping the precinct caucuses first in the nation.”
National Review Online jumped in the same day with an editorial calling the poll a “pseudo-event” and saying it “does more damage than justice to the nominating process, and ensures that the country’s first view of the Grand Old Party’s latest presidential crop is through a distorted lens.”
On the other hand, the straw poll does fill a void by providing badly needed political theater at a time when Congress is out of session. Held in August every four years, the event started as a fundraiser for the Iowa Republican Party but has since mushroomed into a national campaign festival used to handicap the Republican presidential field before the start of the primary season.
Steffen Schmidt, a political-science professor at Iowa State University, says the straw poll qualifies as a cherished American tradition.
“I’m carrying the flag — no way are we going to end the Ames straw poll,” Mr. Schmidt said. “It does everything: it gives candidates a chance to show they can organize, make speeches, put on a display, hire a caterer, hire a band. It raises a lot of money for the Iowa Republican Party, and if you can do that and have a great time, why would you kill it?”
The Iowa GOP, which hosts the event, has emphatically rejected any suggestion of shuttering the straw poll.
“I think it is detrimental for any campaign to skip the opportunity presented in Ames and I disagree with Governor Branstad about ending our Iowa Straw Poll,” Iowa Republican Party chairman A.J. Spiker said in a statement.”The State GOP and the presidential campaigns will determine if there is an Ames Straw Poll come 2015.”
Critics counter that the winner of the primary hardly ever wins the straw poll. Last year, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney placed fourth with 3 percent of the vote. Four years ago, Mr. Romney won the straw poll but lost the bid for the nomination, while Sen. John McCain, the eventual nominee, placed 10th with less than 1 percent of the straw vote.
The straw poll doesn’t even accurately forecast the winner of the Iowa caucus in January. Michelle Bachman threw everything she had into the 2011 straw poll and won, but then went on to capture just 5 percent of the vote for sixth place in the caucuses.
A bigger concern for Republicans is that a poor showing in the Ames straw poll can jettison an otherwise credible candidate from the race. Tim Pawlenty poured resources into the 2011 straw poll and then never recovered after placing third.
Candidates who fare poorly at the straw poll will sometimes opt to limit their participation in the Iowa caucuses, which the governor fears could ultimately diminish their importance. Instead, he has proposed a series of regional events.
Then again, say supporters, many political straw polls and even state primaries fail to predict the winner, and that doesn’t make them less interesting or important. Nobody’s suggesting, for example, that South Carolina stop holding presidential primaries even though its voters went for Newt Gingrich in 2012.
“Let’s have Hillary Clinton and Chris Christie debate each other at the Ames Straw Poll. I’m serious,” Mr. Schmidt said. “The Democrats might think it’s kind of tacky to copy the Republicans, but they’re missing an opportunity to piggyback on a great event.”