In a dozen days, an intense political drama will play out in Iowa at the Iowa Republican Party’s Straw Poll.
The frenetic atmosphere surrounding the August 13 event will be fueled by campaign cash and enormous media attention. Some of the candidates will buy $30 tickets for their supporters and ply the crowd with food and entertainment to lure them to Ames for the Straw Poll voting.
It’s all a far cry from the 1979 Straw Poll, which was a picnic organized by the state party to pay off some of its debt. In 1979 Becky Beach was working for Barbara Bush, who attended the event along with then-candidate George Herbert Walker Bush.
“It wasn’t direct mail pieces and videos and RV buses or anything. It was really almost like a neighborhood picnic,” says Beach, who is a Des Moines-based political fundraiser. ”…If I recall right, there was a lot of attention, and certainly we were there from the first Bush campaign but it was very casual.”
Back in 1979, George H.W. Bush won the Iowa Straw Poll, beating eventual party nominee Ronald Reagan by 25 percentage points. Reagan did not attend the 1979 Straw Poll, but Bush and a handfull of other candidates did. They got to speak, but it was nothing like the event that will be staged in Ames this August. And the Iowa GOP, not the candidates, paid for the food.
“The tables were long, picnic-type tables and you got your food in a buffet and sat down and enjoyed yourself,” Beach says. “It was not an all-day event at all. You had your meal, listened to a little bit of a program, voted and you were gone. I would imagine it took two or three hours, at the most.”
Bush’s son, George W. Bush, won the 1999 Iowa Straw Poll. Bob Dole, the Republican Party’s nominee in 1996, tied for first with Phil Gramm in the August, 1995 Iowa Straw Poll. And while Dole won Iowa’s Caucuses in both 1996 and 1988, he did not win the 1987 Straw Poll. Televangelist Pat Robertson did. Drew Ivers was working for Robertson’s presidential campaign back then.
“It surprised everybody,” Ivers says. “(Robertson) beat the sitting vice president and Dole — beat them both.”
Steve Roberts, a Des Moines lawyer who served on the Republican National Committee, was backing Dole in that 1987 Straw Poll.
“Looking back and getting the full historical picture, it probably shouldn’t have been as big a surprise as it was,” Roberts says. “…The Christian Coalition as it was then named had started organizing very heavily in 1986.”
Pat Robertson’s Straw Poll victory was a tangible sign of The Christian Coalition’s growing influence in the Republican Party. The “Tea Party” movement could have a major impact on this year’s Straw Poll. Ivers, the former Pat Robertson backer, is now running Ron Paul’s presidential effort and Ivers sees the Tea Party “finding its identity” after at least four years of work.
“These things always take time,” Ivers says. “There’s always a build-up and then there’s an expression, a manifestation of all that grassroots energy presenting itself in the political scheme of things.”
However, measuring the impact Tea Party voters may have on the Straw Poll will be more difficult, as candidates like Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain are getting support from people who identify themselves as Tea Party people. Chuck Laudner was executive director of the Iowa Republican Party in 2007, managing the last Straw Poll. Laudner says this year’s Straw Poll is a time when the Tea Party can “prove its strength” by dominating the event.
“The same could be said for home schoolers which as a coalition is pretty young in Iowa politics and I think they enjoyed their success in pushing Huckabee over the line in the Caucuses last time,” Laudner says. “Who are they going to line up behind and put over the top this time and I think, at the Straw Poll, everybody’s looking for the next Huckabee, right? So, it may be up to them.”
Huckabee finished second in the 2007 Iowa Straw Poll, 1931 votes behind Straw Poll victor Mitt Romney who won with 4518 votes, about 31 percent of the Straw Poll ballots cast.