Iowa GOP aims to scale back sideshow at its 2016 straw poll

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DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The people behind Iowa's presidential straw poll want to go back to basics — just politics, no need for tents filled with barbecue and flashy bands.

Held since 1979, the Republican straw poll is considered an early if not always reliable test of strength in presidential campaigns. It's grown from a county fundraiser to a major event where candidates spend heavily to bus in and entertain supporters.

In 2011, for example, candidate Rick Santorum feted people event under a tent where the guitar-playing Mike Huckabee — former Arkansas governor and 2008 and 2016 GOP candidate — jammed with a classic rock band.

Critics complain the event has become a costly sideshow. The Iowa Republican Party on Thursday sought to assuage those concerns by announcing that candidates will no longer have to bid up to $35,000 for space to pitch tents at the event. The state party will also arrange for food vendors and electrical power will be provided.

Candidates can still go over the top and bring in entertainment and grub if they wish. But GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann hopes to end the idea that they have to "pay to play."

"It costs the presidential candidates a ticket to come to the straw poll," Kaufmann said Thursday. "Any problem they had, any reservation they had has been dealt with."

The straw poll will be held in Boone, Iowa, at the Central Iowa Expo on Aug. 8. Tickets cost $30 and candidates may still buy up blocks of them for supporters.

Kaufmann said space will be distributed to candidates through a random drawing. He said he did not know who would attend because the party has not yet issued invitations. And while the event has served as a major party fundraiser in the past, he said that would not be the case this year.

"This is about candidates and Iowa Republicans," he said. "We as a party are putting our money where our mouth is."

The announcement came in advance of the party's annual Lincoln Dinner on May 16, which will draw 11 presidential hopefuls. Most have not made their straw poll plans clear yet. Candidates will be on the poll ballot whether they appear or not.

In 2011, about 17,000 people turned out for the poll, far fewer than the roughly 120,000 who voted in the January 2012 caucuses.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann spent $2 million for the straw poll and won, while eventual GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney chose not to participate. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty dropped out after a third-place finish.

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