This Saturday in South Carolina, Texas governor Rick Perry is expected to make clear that he’s running in 2012. While he is delivering that speech, a band of supporters will be working the crowd at Ames, Iowa, over a thousand miles away, urging Republicans to break with tradition and support Perry with a write-in vote.
“My expectations for Perry in the straw poll would be very, very low,” says Doug Gross, a former gubernatorial nominee who was the Iowa chairman for the Romney campaign in the 2008 cycle. Gross points to the key importance of a campaign’s organization in boosting supporter turnout at Ames.
“The straw-poll test is always an organizational one,” agrees David Yepsen, a former longstanding reporter for the Des Moines Register who is now the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. “You have to bring people to vote. This isn’t like voting absentee or online.”
The odds for an Ames triumph — or even for finishing in the top five — are slim. Yet with Perry likely to have greater appeal in Iowa than in New Hampshire, it is crucial that momentum for his candidacy begin sooner rather than later. The Ames Straw Poll, first held in 1979, is not a perfect predictor of the caucus winner. But since its inception there has never been a caucus winner who was not a declared candidate at the time of the straw poll.
In Iowa, Perry will face several candidates equally determined to win the state — particularly since it looks increasingly unlikely that anyone will be able to dislodge Mitt Romney from his perch as top candidate in New Hampshire. And the other candidates will have the advantage of having built up organization and supporters in the months prior to the straw poll. A strong showing as a write-in candidate at Ames would help establish that Perry’s political appeal is robust enough to overcome the organizational challenges.
Perry does have one ace in the hole: His supporters have been so confident he would declare that they have been campaigning for him in Iowa for six weeks now. A group called Americans for Rick Perry has been crisscrossing the state, attending Republican gatherings and spreading the word.
Craig Schoenfeld, the Iowa director of Americans for Rick Perry, says that at one recent Republican fundraiser he attended (which featured a speech by another GOP candidate, Rep. Thad McCotter of Michigan), many of the 80 guests were interested in the Perry pitch that he and another staffer made when working the room. “About a third of them were interested in learning more about Governor Perry,” Schoenfeld says. “They were not committed to a candidate, or, if they were, they were still open to hearing more about the governor. Whether it’s rooms of six or 60, that’s been the general response. People are anxious to meet him.”
Initially, Americans for Rick Perry had hoped to have an aggressive presence at the straw poll, including a tent at Ames and Perry’s name on the ballot. Ames organizers shot down both those options because he hadn’t yet declared. Now the group hopes to round up about two dozen staffers and volunteers to walk around the straw poll and strike up conversations with voters about Perry’s record. Schoenfeld is realistic about their chances of seeing a big surge of support at Ames. “The straw poll is historically a campaign-driven event,” he concedes. “So I don’t really have any expectation or any good grasp of what might happen.”
But while Americans for Rick Perry has been thwarted in its early ambitions, two other pro-Perry organizations have stepped in. A group called Jobs for Iowa is running TV ads touting Perry’s success as a job creator, while GrowPAC (headed by David Malpass, an economist who ran for the Republican nomination for senator in New York last year) has run radio ads that urge listeners to write in Perry’s name on their Ames ballot.
Yet that publicity, even for a candidate likely to be popular among Hawkeye State Republicans, may still be no match for campaigns that lure supporters by giving out Ames tickets ($30 apiece), arranging for buses to transport straw-poll participants, and supplying entertainment and food at Ames.
And while Perry visited Iowa in 2007, campaigning for Rudy Giuliani, it’s unlikely that that visit made enough of an impression to generate any homegrown enthusiasm for him four years later. “There are lots of surrogates who come in for lots of people,” Yepsen says. “Frankly, they oftentimes don’t get a lot of attention from the local media because the media are preoccupied with real candidates.”
But even with a poor showing at Ames, Rick Perry may have the last laugh if he announces that same day.
“What he’s trying to do is to prevent the winner of the Iowa straw poll from having a day in the sun alone,” observes Gross. “That would be the strategy — and it’s not a bad strategy.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.