DES MOINES, Iowa—"This year, it starts in Boone."
That's how the 1,300-plus attendees of the Iowa Republican Party's Lincoln Dinner here were greeted in a video that kicked off the fundraising event Saturday night, referring to the state's controversial presidential straw poll scheduled for Aug. 8. What remains to be seen, however, is how many of the Republican presidential hopefuls that took the stage afterwards heeded the message.
With 83 days until the straw poll, most White House contenders still are weighing whether to participate in the widely covered event. The state party hopes that providing free space and food to the campaigns at the event will help cut down on costs and encourage more candidates to come. But even with those changes, which Iowa Republicans largely applauded, the straw poll presents little upside for the perceived favorites to win the GOP nomination, and little downside for the long shots looking to stake their claim in the race. None of the Republican presidential aspirants have yet to firmly commit to participating in the 2015 poll, while two—Jeb Bush and Lindsey Graham—have already opted out.
"For those candidates who are trying to establish their dominance in Iowa and lay a marker down, they need to think long and hard about the opportunity the straw poll presents," said Matt Strawn, a former Iowa Republican Party chairman who ran John McCain's 2008 operation in the state. "There's no question there is potential risk that they're going to have to weigh with the reward, but part of that risk is, if they choose not to participate, will another candidate fill the vacuum and take advantage of that opportunity?"
Republican elites and the media have long criticized the Iowa straw poll, which takes place the summer before the first-in-the-nation caucuses, as a sideshow that boosts fringe presidential candidates at the expense of top-tier contenders. The Iowa GOP, fighting to preserve an event that has been a successful fundraiser and popular among the state's most dedicated activists, hopes the set of changes it unveiled to the poll that it hopes will alleviate the some of the concerns of the its skeptics. And many Iowa Republicans believe the event can provide campaigns with a productive early organizing test, even if the poll generally isn't predictive of who will actually win the caucuses.
While party leaders heavily plugged the straw poll at the Lincoln Dinner, none of the 11 presidential hopefuls, including Scott Walker, Rand Paul, and 2012 Iowa caucus winner Rick Santorum, in attendance even mentioned the poll during their speeches. Some dinner's attendees anticipated that a few of the speakers would make their intentions about the poll known Saturday night. But so far, besides Bush and Graham, none of the 2016 GOP camps are prepared to make a final decision one way or the other. Ben Carson's team, though, signaled that the retired neurosurgeon will likely participate.
"If the Iowa grassroots want it, we're going to be there," said Ryan Rhodes, Carson's Iowa campaign director. "We'll be making that decision very shortly."
For his part, Bush, who tops many of the national GOP polls, followed the lead of McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 by deciding that the risks of the Iowa contest outweighed the rewards. Even though he's not technically a candidate yet, Bush's team said last week that the former Florida governor will not participate in the poll, drawing a strong rebuke from Iowa GOP chairman Jeff Kaufmann. "We hope Governor Bush rethinks his decision and realizes that grassroots will only grow in Iowa if he waters them," Kaufmann said.
After appearing at a fundraiser with Sen. Chuck Grassley in Iowa City on Saturday afternoon, Bush said the Iowa poll is "not relevant."
"I just don't do straw polls," Bush said. "It has nothing to do with the caucuses that will ultimately determine how people are going to be successful. All the resources ought to go to the thing that matters, and that's the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1."
Grassley, however, had a much different message at the Lincoln Dinner that night, where the Iowa GOP made a major push for the straw poll. Aside from the opening video, attendees found information on how to purchase tickets for the event at their tables when they arrived.
Both Grassley and Kaufmann made a point to emphasize the poll during their remarks. "Save yourself some money. Sign up for it tonight," Grassley urged the crowd, noting that tickets purchased early are five dollars cheaper.
Top Republicans in Iowa are keeping a close eye on whether Walker and Marco Rubio will choose to participate. Appearances from two Republicans generally considered to be in the top tier of presidential contenders nationally could lend greater legitimacy to the event, they say, especially without Bush in the mix.
Tim Pawlenty's fate in the 2011 straw poll, however, offers a cautionary tale of what can happen if leading candidates perform worse than expected. A third-place finish so badly bruised the front-running Minnesota governor that he was forced drop out of the 2012 GOP primary race altogether.
"Anyone that considers themselves a top-tier candidate won't be participating" in this year's poll, predicted Matt Whitaker, who cochaired Pawlenty's 2012 Iowa campaign.
Just three of the six Iowa straw poll winners went on to win the state's caucus, and just two won the Republican nomination. But even if the event isn't all that good at picking winners, some Republicans argue that it can still provide other benefits for campaigns, such as an organizational practice run before caucus day.
"I just think the organizing side is the biggest reward," said Grant Young, a veteran Republican field organizer in the state. "It's a good scrimmage to see where you are in spring ball."
The poll also is dealing with some competition. The conservative RedState Gathering is set to take place in Atlanta on the same weekend as the Iowa event, and already has drawn commitments from five Republican presidential contenders, including Bush.
This year is a critical one for the poll's future. After the 2012 election, Gov. Terry Branstad said "the straw poll has outlived its usefulness." The governor has since backed off slightly, and his office has indicated that he appreciates the changes the party has made to the event. But he and other poll critics surely will keep a close eye on how the event unfolds this summer.
Kaufmann knows this. His final words at the Lincoln Dinner, to activists and candidates alike: "We will see you at the straw poll on the eighth."
Adam Wollner is an analyst for National Journal Hotline. Previously, he covered politics as an intern for NPR and the Center for Public Integrity. A native Wisconsinite, Wollner graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013 with a bachelor degree in journalism and political science.