Two of the three top-tier GOP presidential candidates — Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney — have announced they won’t actively participate in Florida’s Presidency 5 straw poll next month, and the third, Rick Perry, is still undecided. But that’s no reason to write off the results of the poll.
First off, the Florida Republican party’s Presidency series is no Ames. It is trickier in Florida to dominate the poll with one candidate’s fans: All the 3,500 delegates who vote in the Florida straw poll pay their own conference fees — whereas in Ames, campaigns are allowed to offer free tickets and transportation to lure delegates. Also, in Iowa, it is up to individuals to decide whether to attend, whereas in Florida each county is allotted a certain number of delegates, based on that county’s Republican population, and three-quarters of each county’s delegates are chosen by lottery (the other quarter are chosen by a county GOP committee). In Florida, for a candidate to participate, all he or she has to do is give a speech to the delegates the day of the straw poll. There is no participation fee or anything equivalent to the Ames tent and entertainment demands. And regardless of whether a candidate officially participates or not, all major candidates will be listed on the ballot.
There is another key difference from Ames: the predictive quality of the results. The Florida straw poll has been held three times so far — in 1979, 1987, and 1995 (there was no Presidency event in 1999, and Presidency 4, in 2007, was just a debate, without the straw poll). In each of the three, the winner went on to win Florida’s primary and the GOP nomination (and the first two, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, won the presidency, though Bob Dole fell short). In contrast, only three of the five Ames winners have won the Iowa caucuses and only two have won the GOP nomination –Bob Dole and George W. Bush, with only Bush winning the presidency.
The Romney campaign announced back in June that it would not participate in any straw polls this cycle. Campaign manager Matt Rhoades issued a statement saying that the campaign “respect[s] the straw poll process” but “will focus our energies and resources on winning primaries and caucuses.”
Bachmann spokeswoman Alice Stewart told Politico that the Bachmann campaign had been concentrating on debate preparation and winning Ames. “We are just now at the point where we can focus on building a team in the critical state of Florida,” Stewart said.
As for the other candidates, Huntsman spokesman Tim Miller says, “P5 is a great event, and we’ll be participating at the same level as the rest of the field,” although Miller adds, “Our primary focus is, as it should be, on winning real votes in primaries.” Ron Paul spokesman Gary Howard said Paul would be on the ballot, but he added that the campaign would not be fighting aggressively for votes. “It is definitely a casual participation for us . . . It seems to be more of a party insiders’ thing,” Howard says.
Herman Cain is also confirmed to participate, according to the Florida GOP. The Perry campaign has not yet decided whether to participate. The Santorum and Gingrich campaigns did not respond to NRO’s requests for comment.
Whether the candidates officially participate in the poll or not, they will all have a chance to try to wow the delegates, who will be present at the presidential debate held in Florida two days before. Furthermore, while CPAC’s Florida conference — scheduled for the day between the debate and the straw poll — is not officially affiliated with Presidency 5, it is anticipated that many of the delegates will also attend that conference. Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, and Rick Santorum are all confirmed speakers at CPAC FL; Rick Perry and Ron Paul have been invited to speak but have yet to confirm. So even if the candidates opt not to speak at the straw poll itself, they will have had opportunities to influence the delegates before then.
According to Brett Doster, who served as executive director of George W. Bush’s 2004 Florida campaign, it’s that opportunity that may be the most valuable. “I think that for the delegates who are involved, who are the most impassioned Republicans, the straw poll is very important because it gives them a chance to look at these candidates up close and personal for the first time,” Doster says. “They’ll be able to go back to their local Republican parties and clubs and meetings, and talk about the conversations they were able to have with these candidates firsthand, outside of the controlled environment of either a fundraiser or a grassroots event that’s hosted by the campaign itself.”
Brian Hughes, communications director for the Florida GOP, describes the delegates as “our best grassroots activists, our most active activists. They are our Republican executive-committee members, our elected officials, and our most important donors from all levels of donation. These will be the people,” Hughes says, “who get their friends and neighbors out, who give money, who go to rallies, who help organize campaigns and help get-out-the-vote efforts.”
Doster doesn’t see there being a backlash against Romney and Bachmann for their decision not to participate. “I doubt very seriously that there are any real Romney supporters or real Bachmann supporters who will then peel off and vote for someone else because those two say they’re not participating,” Doster says.
But Hughes thinks candidates are foolish to ignore the poll. “I’m genuinely confounded by candidates who claim to be of national stature but somehow are hedging around what they’re actually doing in Presidency 5,” he says. “Florida is a crucial swing state. Every analysis of how to win the White House says you have to win Florida. That process doesn’t begin months from now. That process has to begin now.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.