It’s do-or-die time for the Iowa Straw Poll. The Republican caucus tradition hasn’t attracted many major participants yet, with Mike Huckabee and Jeb Bush already ruling the event out. While the other White House hopefuls gather with their campaign teams to decide whether or not to attend, press stories abound about the Straw Poll’s shortcomings.
Some have focused on the failures of past participants. Tim Pawlenty went all-in and dropped out later. Michelle Bachmann won, then squandered her momentum. Others are focusing on the minutia of the event. How’s the candidate exhibition space/tents going to work? How are attendees going to buy tickets? Will the new Boone location run smoothly?
Yet all of these concerns seem tiny compared to larger 2016 picture. The biggest question any candidate should be asking themselves when it comes to participating in the Straw Poll is this:
When else are you going to stand out?
Seriously. There’s going to be something like 20 Republicans in the race soon. 20. Do you really think you’re going to break out during your five minute allotment on a debate stage crammed with other candidates – if you even make the cut to be in a debate?
Those wavering on attending the Straw Poll seem to be missing the bigger picture. If you’re an underdog, you need a moment to shine – better to make it one of your choosing than to count on luck. If you’re in the lead, you need to stay in the lead. That means fighting hard for caucus-goers at every opportunity you get and not letting an insurgent opponent catch up to you.
None of the so-called “front-runners” should feel secure in that designation. Right now, many see Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio as the three most likely to get the nomination. But all of them have multiple other candidates nipping at their heels who could get hot at the right time and knock them off in a crucial state. Those doing well in the polls can’t just sit back and play it safe. This 2016 field is much too competitive for complacency.
Scott Walker is perhaps the biggest question mark for the Straw Poll. He’s led for months in the Iowa polls, and sees his neighbor (and once home) state as key to his path to the nomination. So why skip the event and risk letting someone else catch fire in Iowa? If you need to win here, then win here. One helpful way to do that is by meeting all the excited Republican activists at the Straw Poll. They’ll appreciate those who show up.
And for those hoping to break out from the 1% and 2% club in the polls, here’s your chance. Everyone is invited, something not true of the upcoming debates. Hundreds of reporters will be covering it, giving you the chance to boost your national profile and fundraising ability. And meeting all the grass-roots activists in one place is an easy way to make inroads even if you didn’t bus many of them in.
Huckabee was once one of those long-shots. He finished second in the 2007 Straw Poll, but announced this week in the Des Moines Register with an op-ed that he’s skipping it this time. You don’t get many opportunities to get an op-ed published in the state’s largest newspaper, so it was kind of odd he’d talk about campaign process, and not pro-life issues or foreign policy with this. Huckabee argues the Straw Poll divides conservative candidates by forcing them to spend their resources on the event, all to the moderate front-runners’ benefit. You could also make the argument that having 10-15 conservatives appealing to evangelicals and the Tea Party also divides it by literally dividing that vote. This event might cull a few from the flock.
It also seemed to needlessly poke Iowa Republicans in the eye. Imagine if the Harkin Steak Fry still existed and Hillary Clinton took out a Register op-ed solely to say she’s skipping the beloved Democratic event because she’s sticking with her small event settings. There’s also a risk of disappointing Republican activists by not being there.
Is there danger in participating? Absolutely. In the past some candidates have focused considerable money and time on the event only to place poorly and struggle afterwards. But if you trust your appeal, and you trust the campaign staff you hired, why not go out on the field and play the game?
Too many candidates are looking at the Straw Poll through a negative light. They ought to realize it as the opportunity it is. There’s about eight months between now and the Iowa Caucus. There may be 20 candidates competing in it. Not everyone will have their month-long poll surge. They need to seize the chances presented to them, and this is one.
Fortune favors the bold, not the cautious and calculating. In fact, I can think of a certain Democratic front-runner Republicans delight in branding cautious and calculating. If a Republican White House hopeful wants to stand out not just in the primary, but in the general election too, maybe they should start acting like the bold leaders they portray themselves as. That means taking risks and acting like you really want to win this thing.
by Pat Rynard