The event has been criticized by some conservatives for being irrelevant, but the unanimous vote by the party’s Central Committee to continue it is a sign that local Republicans still see the straw poll as an important early test for presidential candidates.
“The Central Committee recognizes the straw poll fundraiser is not only an important organizing event for Iowa Republicans, but also provides the only opportunity during the Iowa Caucus process where candidates can speak to tens of thousands of voters in a single event,” Iowa Republican Party Chairman Jeff Kaufmann said in a statement.
The straw poll was first held in 1979 when it was won by George H.W. Bush and traditionally it takes place on the Iowa State University campus in Ames. The event is part carnival and part political conference, where voters, journalists and political operatives are pursued by candidates. It is a major fundraising tool for the Iowa Republican Party. Candidates rent space, often air-conditioned, as they try to build support among those gathered who are often bussed in from other parts of Iowa as well as out of state.
The last straw poll in 2011 proved to be a false indicator, as Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann won, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul was close behind in second place. Neither candidate ended up in the top two places in the 2012 caucuses in which former Sen. Rick Santorum was the victor.
In 2007, Mitt Romney won the straw poll only to go on to lose to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in that cycle’s caucuses.
After the 2012 election Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad questioned the usefulness of the straw poll, saying he fears the straw poll is no longer representative and that its a turn off for candidates. In 2012 Romney skipped the event all together and went on to become the Republican presidential nominee.
Only one Republican non-incumbent has won the straw poll and gone on to occupy the Oval Office: George W. Bush in 2000.