Goodbye, Straw Poll—How the GOP Is Punishing Its Long-Shot Candidates

Party elites saw a contest that strengthened their weaker candidates and weakened their stronger ones, and now it's gone.

The GOP's 2016 long-shot candidates saw their chances grow even slimmer this week, thanks to a pair of decisions that further locked them out of the party spotlight.

Between the death of the Iowa Straw Poll and a new, two-tiered debate system, Republican candidates who are struggling to break into the top tier of presidential hopefuls (such as Carly Fiorina or Rick Santorum) lost two key opportunities to build early momentum—and take aim at the contest's front-runners—before voters started to cast primary ballots.

On Friday morning, the Iowa Republican Party's state central committee voted unanimously to cancel this year's straw poll after the party struggled to secure commitments from candidates to attend. Iowa's GOP enjoyed the attention and fundraising opportunities it provided, but national party elites saw a contest that strengthened their weaker candidates and weakened their stronger ones—and now it's gone.

That means the long shots have lost a launching pad to the front of the pack. Strong finishes at the straw poll, an event that has become a staple on the presidential campaign trail and is well-attended by the state's most dedicated activists, have helped nonestablishment candidates make a splash in past primary races. Michele Bachmann's first-place finish in the 2011 straw poll boosted her exposure, however briefly, in the first-in-the-nation caucus state. Conversely, a disappointing third-place finish contributed to Tim Pawlenty's decision to drop out of the race.

And in the 2008 presidential election, Mike Huckabee's improbable run to the front of the field was kick-started after posting a surprising second-place finish behind Mitt Romney in the 2007 straw poll. He went on to win the 2008 Iowa caucuses and finish second in the Republican nominating contest to John McCain. Without the straw poll, long-shot candidates in 2016 won't have the same chance to make early inroads with the state's caucus-goers and get their campaigns off the ground

Long-shot candidates also have used the primary debates as a way to distinguish themselves from the rest of the field as voters are beginning to form their opinions. After a tumultuous summer in 2011, Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign was revitalized after a number of strong performances in the fall debates—complete with attacks on the media that played well with the party's conservative base.

But Gingrich was able to make his case to voters while standing on the same stage as the GOP front-runner, Mitt Romney. The Gingriches of 2016 may not have such luck. With a Republican presidential race that could see upward of 16 candidates, Fox and CNN—the networks hosting the first two presidential debates—have decided to split the field in two. In both cases, the candidates who place in the top 10 in the national polling averages will participate in one debate, while the candidates who don't make the cut will have their own separate debate. That event will not only get much less attention from the media, party leaders, and voters, but it deprives the long shots of a chance to lob face-to-face criticism at favorites for the nomination, such as Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker.

Certainly, strong performances at the straw poll and on the debate stage aren't all it takes for a long-shot candidate to turn into a legitimate contender. But in a race as crowded as the one for the 2016 Republican nomination, they needed those opportunities more than ever.