Is Ron Paul the candidate to beat at Ames this year?
The Texas congressman may be sixth in the national polls, according to the RealClearPolitics average, but when it comes to winning straw polls, no one is better. Smart organizing and an especially dedicated base propelled Paul to victory at the CPAC straw poll in both 2010 and 2011. More recently, Paul won the straw poll at the Republican Leadership Conference this June, beating a crop of popular GOP candidates, including Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain. While attention is focused on the Bachmann–Pawlenty rivalry (and how many write-in votes possible candidate Rick Perry can score), Paul may just swoop in and be in the top three — or win outright.
“He is slowly emerging as a very real contender at Ames,” says Tim Albrecht, communications director for Iowa governor Terry Branstad and Mitt Romney’s Iowa press secretary last cycle. “If he just starts [with] that base that he turned out [in 2007], and then turns out just a fraction of his caucus goers, all of a sudden he can turn out what it takes to win. I certainly think he’s in a strong position to have a top-three finish.”
In 2007, Paul finished fifth at Ames, trailing Romney, Mike Huckabee, Sam Brownback, and Tom Tancredo. Publicly, his campaign is sending out the message that any placement better than fifth will be satisfactory. “Even though we got a late start compared to most of the other candidates (Bachmann, Pawlenty, et al., started gathering organization on the ground in Iowa long before they announced), if we finish somewhere in the top four, it would be a great improvement over 2007,” says campaign spokesman Gary Howard.
The Paul campaign has aggressively laid the groundwork for an impressive showing at Ames, including buying the priciest (and best) location by the arena where the straw poll is held for $31,000. In a fundraising letter last month, Paul wrote, “I’m counting on you to help me send shockwaves throughout the national political establishment with a strong finish at the Iowa Straw Poll.” His “Ready, Fire, Ames” appeal resonated: The campaign raked in $600,000. The Paul campaign is running TV ads, and Paul himself has been actively campaigning in Iowa.
Earlier this week in Iowa, he openly speculated about winning at Ames. “I wished I could say I’m the frontrunner and nobody’s ahead of me and it’s a shoo-in. But the truth is that we can do and will do very, very well and hopefully come in first,” Paul said, according to Radio Iowa.
Drew Ivers, Iowa chairman of the Paul campaign, is cautiously optimistic. “All things are possible,” he says of a first-place finish at Ames. But he is also realistic, pointing out that while Paul has had significant poll movement (an American Research Group July poll showed Paul at 14 percent, up from the 3 percent he had in April), Bachmann has had even more movement (in the same poll, Bachmann went from 9 percent in April to 21 percent in July).
“The goal that we have as a campaign is to do well. It doesn’t have to be first place,” Ivers says. For him, another crucial factor is how many votes separate the candidates: He is hoping there won’t be a “big gap” between Paul and candidates who place higher.
Ivers, who thinks that Paul’s message resonates in Iowa more now that it did in 2007, observes that Paul supporters in Iowa have become “more politically astute” and are “more comfortable showing up” at Ames.
Cory Adams, the GOP chair of the county that includes Ames, predicts that Paul will do well at the straw poll. “I think he’s got a fairly good shot, maybe even of winning it. If not, he should be in the top three,” says Adams, who endorsed Paul last week.
If Paul does win, Albrecht is dubious that he could piggyback onto the momentum to a caucus win.
“Ron Paul is the guy who brings new voters to the Republican party,” says Albrecht. “His greatest challenge is going to be bringing Republican party voters to Ron Paul. That’s what he’s got to overcome. Until he does that, I don’t believe he can win a large-scale event like the caucus.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.