An Evangelical Iowa Straw Poll?

September 12, 2013

The Iowa Straw Poll, the test of Republican presidential test that attracts political groups, media attention, and money to the "Hawkeye State," might not to see another race. Started in 1979 (for the 1980 presidential election), this event held in the August before the presidential election often boosts the standing of some lesser-known presidential candidates. And even though the non-binding poll has no technical impact on the presidential nomination delegate process, several candidates ended their presidential runs after unexpectedly poor showings at the event held at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Ames. The Iowa Straw Poll showed the influence of conservative evangelical activists with strong showing by Pat Robertson in 1987, Mike Huckabee in 2007, and Michele Bachmann in 2011. I noted the influence of evangelicals at the 2011 Iowa Straw Poll in an Ethics Daily article after attending the it (the photo is one I took of Ron Paul's area at the event). However, Bachmann's victory in 2011 - followed by her utter collapse in the presidential race in the following months - led some to believe the contest no longer helps the Republican Party. Although the event raises a lot of money for the state Republican Party, the last two eventual nominees skipped the skipped the event during the campaign in which they captured the national nomination: John McCain in 2007 and Mitt Romney in 2011 (although Romney participated in 2007). Since the last presidential campaign, Republican Iowa Governor Terry Branstad added his voice to the growing chorus of Republican leaders suggesting the Iowa Straw Poll may no longer be helpful for Republicans. Ironically, if the Iowa Straw Poll dies, it will be due to the success of conservative evangelical activists who most benefited from it. While the Straw Poll has helped evangelical candidates due to the organizing strength of conservative evangelicals in the state, the same evangelical candidates are performing so poorly elsewhere that they are hurting the credibility of anything they won.

As a result of growing criticism about the Iowa Straw Poll, some conservative evangelicals hope to save the Iowa Straw Poll, even if it means running their own if the state Republicans drop the official one. Last month, The Family Leader (a conservative religious-political group) announced they would try to run a replacement straw poll if the state Republicans kill the Iowa Straw Poll. The group's leader, Bob Vander Plaats, explained:
I'm not sure what the future of the straw poll is, but if the straw poll doesn't take place, this event is going to be poised to be a magnet for candidates and for the base to really get a look at who they want to support in the caucus.
Although he is correct that his organization's event would get more attention without an official straw poll, it would not achieve near the level of perceived importance, media attention, or credibility as the Iowa Straw Poll. An event sponsored by conservative evangelicals would be even more ghettoized than the Iowa Straw Poll is becoming as credible candidates would avoid it and fringe candidates would emerge as stars. After all, The Family Leader's event last month featured Donald Trump (who is oddly popular with conservative evangelicals as I noted in an Ethics Daily article a few years ago). The Iowa Straw Poll's current limbo status seems like a perfect metaphor for conservative evangelical influence in the Republican Party. It came to life in 1979 and now seems to be life-support as it becomes a victim of its own decisions.