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Editorial: Kill the Ames Straw Poll

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | SEPTEMBER 04, 2013 5:00 AM

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Since 1979, the Ames Straw Poll has been held in the late summer before the Iowa caucuses, as a presidential poll and fundraiser for the Iowa GOP. Candidates typically pay to set up tents complete with food and entertainment for attendees, who must also pay an entry fee.

Only twice since the event’s inception 34 years ago has it actually selected the Republican winner of the Iowa caucuses and just once, in 1999, it chose the eventual victor in a presidential election.

In November 2012, Gov. Terry Branstad suggested scrapping the Ames Straw Poll in favor of a “series of regional fundraisers and events that can help the party raise money as well as giving the candidates an opportunity for forums and visibility throughout the state.”

Iowa GOP Chairman A.J. Spiker opposed Branstad’s position in a statement, arguing that the Ames Straw Poll provides a huge opportunity for candidates to prepare for the caucuses. However, he also said the Iowa GOP and presidential candidates will decide if the Ames Straw Poll occurs in 2015 and a comment Spiker made to the Sioux City Journal just last week suggests that whether the quadrennial poll will be held again has not been undecided.

This electoral down time is a perfect opportunity for the Iowa GOP to devise a superior alternative to the Ames Straw Poll, preferably similar to the one recommended by Branstad, which would encourage candidates to travel around the state to connect with voters instead of congregating in a single centralized venue for one event. Not only would this system be more democratic, but it may also help Iowa retain its first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Being first in line for several months of primaries and caucuses obviously inspires some jealousy from other states and understandably so, especially when Iowans don’t at all match the demographic profile of average Americans.

Most notably, Iowa is both 30 percent whiter than the rest of the nation and about 20 percent fewer Iowans live in urban areas than average Americans. This, in an era of exploding diversity and mass urbanization hurts Iowa’s case for maintaining its position in the series of presidential caucuses and primaries.

The Ames Straw Poll, with its poor track record of predicting winners of the Iowa caucuses, only hurts Iowa’s prestigious position even more.

A blog post by Matthew Dickinson, a political-science professor at Middlebury College, noted that the poll is extremely unrepresentative of Iowa voters because around 10,000 to 20,000 people on average attend the event and have to pay $30 to enter.

Branstad also cited the lack of representation as motivating his desire to eliminate the Ames Straw Poll.

“It’s not representative,” he said. “The results have shown that in recent times because the people who’ve won the straw polls have not won the caucuses, and this is what’s most important.”

The goal of any democratic society should be to involve as many people as possible in the voting process. Having presidential candidates travel around Iowa to garner support will surely improve Iowa voters’ access to the candidates, benefitting everyone: voters, the GOP, candidates, and the democratic process.

It behooves the Iowa GOP to eliminate the Ames Straw Poll in favor of regional fundraisers across the state to get more voters involved and to help retain Iowa’s valuable political asset of the first-in-the-nation caucus.


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