Looking at the Ames Straw Poll from the outside, it’s easy to dismiss it as an overhyped event, pumped up by news organizations desperate for something to cover in August and by a state Republican party that welcomes the chance to sell $30 tickets — not to mention the boon to the local economy of candidates’ spending tens of thousands on tents near the arena where the straw poll is held.
But Iowa nominates candidates through a caucus, which demands more commitment than a primary — and Ames is a good test of voters’ commitment to their candidates. “The caucuses in February aren’t like a primary, where you run in, take ten minutes to vote, and come back out. A caucus takes a time commitment of 60, 90 minutes,” observes Matt Strawn, chairman of the Iowa GOP. He says that if someone is willing to come to Ames in August, that person will also be willing to take the time to participate in the caucuses.
Furthermore, the straw poll is a reasonably good predictor of caucus success. Since the straw poll’s inception in 1979, the caucuses have always been won by a candidate who won or placed second at Ames. “History would suggest that it does play an important role as an indicator of which campaigns are connecting with Iowa voters — and not just connecting with their message, but also seeing success on the ground organizing,” Strawn says.
This time around, Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, and Ron Paul are considered the top three contenders in Iowa. Bachmann’s organization is weak — she entered the race only in June, and does not appear to have begun seriously organizing in Iowa before that — but her momentum is so strong that it could compensate. Pawlenty has run TV and radio ads, mailed out fliers, and spent two-thirds of the last month in Iowa campaigning — and has reportedly spent about $1 million in the process. While Pawlenty says that he merely needs to show “progress” at Ames, his campaign’s actions indicate that he needs something more: a win or a second-place finish. Ron Paul, who placed fifth in 2008, is determined to show that he has the organization and the supporter firepower to pull off a win this time.
“The history of that straw poll is that it can elevate a candidate out of obscurity or it can knock a candidate out of that race,” says David Yepsen, a former long-time Des Moines Register reporter.
Iowa Republican congressman Steve King points to Huckabee’s second-place finish at Ames as proof of the straw poll’s ability to elevate. “Mike Huckabee four years ago was a little-known, not-very-well-funded candidate who did very well in the straw poll,” King says. “He finished second, and that positioned him well enough to win the Iowa caucus. He very nearly won the nomination for the presidency. He could have been president of the United States today.”
But if Huckabee’s strong finish affirmed Ames’s importance, this year’s results might do the opposite. Few see a path for Paul to win the actual caucuses, even if the dedication of his supporters gives him an Ames win. Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Jon Huntsman have declined to participate. Perry is set to announce his own presidential run tomorrow in South Carolina. If Paul wins at Ames, or if any of the non-participating candidates eventually wins the caucuses, the straw poll will look inconsequential.
To King, it’s crucial that the straw poll, which demands a lot of retail politicking from the candidates, remain an important benchmark in the campaign season. “If we ever lose the Iowa straw poll, which is essential to set up the caucuses, then we’ll never again see a president who came from the grassroots and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, by force of their campaign and personality and ideas,” he says. “Instead, all of our presidents thereafter would be those who were elected because they had the money to hire the best team to create a media image for them, rather than be a real person.”