DES MOINES – In a still-developing 2012 Republican presidential field, this week’s straw poll in Ames is shaping up to be as much about who isn’t directly competing as it is about the half-dozen candidates who are investing time, money and organization in hopes of seizing the momentum a top-tier finish can deliver.
GOP Straw Poll
- When: Saturday, Aug. 13
- Where: Hilton Coliseum on Iowa State University campus in Ames
- Cost: $30 per ticket
- Itinerary: Doors open at 9 a.m., voting begins at 10 a.m., program begins at noon, voting closes at 4 p.m.
- Who votes: Ticket-holders registered to vote in Iowa with valid photo identification who will be 18 on or before Nov. 6, 2012
- Parking: Available in ISU lots
- Media interest: Roughly 700 credentials issued
Source: Republican Party of Iowa
Political observers believe Saturday’s early test is shaping up to be a three-way race among Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Texas Rep. Ron Paul. But the wild cards will be whether a write-in campaign for Texas Gov. Rick Perry – not yet an announced candidate but possibly on Saturday – or a stealth campaign by 2007 straw poll winner and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will deliver any surprises within the tent city that springs up around Hilton Coliseum.
“We’ve got no real expectation,” said Craig Schoenfeld, Iowa director of the California-based 527 group Americans for Rick Perry, which is spearheading a write-in effort on behalf of the Texas governor in balloting to take place during the Republican Party of Iowa’s weekend fundraising event.
“The straw poll is a candidate-driven event and we have no candidate and there’s no campaign,” he said. “We don’t have Randy Travis, we don’t have a barbeque, we’re not giving away peach jam,” Schoenfeld added in reference to other planned candidate activities designed to garner the attention of the throngs of Iowa Republicans and 700 credentialed journalists who are expected to take in the carnival-like atmosphere and campaign speeches during the GOP pep rally.
Perry will be in South Carolina on Saturday, where he reportedly will discuss his presidential plans and follow that up with an appearance at a GOP fundraising event in Waterloo on Sunday.
Bachmann, Pawlenty, Paul, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, business executive Herman Cain of Georgia and Michigan Rep. Thaddeus McCotter have reserved space at Saturday’s straw poll site and are guaranteed slots on the ballot. In addition, Iowa GOP officials have agreed to include Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman on the ballot and provide a write-in option for unannounced Republicans like Perry and former Alaska Gov. and 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.
“It’s wide open. Every candidate has something to prove going into Saturday,” said GOP operative Tim Albrecht, currently Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s press secretary who worked for Romney’s Iowa campaign four years ago. “It’s very much up in the air as to who will do well, but there’s no question that multiple candidates need to do well.”
Albrecht said it will be interesting to see whether Perry can top the 203 votes that Fred Thompson polled in 2007 in a similar-unannounced-but-likely-to-run position to create some media buzz and how he fares matched up with Romney, who will participate in an Iowa GOP/Fox News debate on Thursday but is not competing in the straw poll and waging a low-profile campaign in Iowa in favor of launching his 2012 bid in earnest in New Hampshire’s kickoff primary.
“If you think you’re not going to do well, it’s much better to stay out,” political science professor Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “It didn’t hurt McCain, he became the nominee. The downside is you never want to look like a loser, particular if you’re the frontrunner — coming in seventh or eighth, that would be embarrassing.
“There’s no upside for him because the Iowa caucus electorate is not friendly to him. Once burned, twice shy,” Sabato added. “I guess he could play Charlie Brown and let Lucy tee up the ball again, but why would he?”
Albrecht said it’s difficult to get supporters to show up in Ames from the far corners of Iowa if campaigns aren’t paying for the $30 admission ticket or providing food and transportation. In Romney’s case, he said the Massachusetts governor can run a “been there, won that strategy” with this straw poll that he couldn’t have done four years ago. “They’ll be watching from afar, but they’ll be watching closely to see how this shakes out.”
Sabato said Perry has “the perfect out” because he can deny any knowledge of a write-in effort and say he doesn’t support it or want it done because he hasn’t decided whether he’ll run but then “if he actually does well, he can say, my God, look at that and we didn’t do anything – so you can’t lose on that one.”
Des Moines attorney Doug Gross, a GOP activist and 2002 gubernatorial candidate, said Perry’s expected entry into the race likely will force Romney to compete more actively in Iowa than he would otherwise anticipate. “If Perry could win here, it would really hurt Romney’s momentum,” he said.
Richard Schwarm, a former Iowa GOP chairman from Lake Mills, said this year is intriguing because of the Perry write-in effort and the way that social media is allowing candidates to communicate with Iowans in non-traditional ways. He said it is unprecedented that Perry and Palin could still have a viable chance of winning the nomination even after waiting until after the Ames straw poll to announce and he believed social networking could enable candidates who make a poor showing to stay in the race – unlike past straw polls when a lackluster showing doomed many campaigns.
“It’s always had a winnowing effect. It’s going to be interesting to see if it has the same effect, but it’s certainly going to boost three candidates,” Schwarm said.
Sabato said he expected the straw poll outcome to be the beginning of the end for some 2012 campaigns.
“Some of those lower-tier candidates will not survive bad showings in Ames. They just won’t. Money will dry up and some staffers will find reasons to move elsewhere or find other things to do. So, it could be devastating for some who really finish poorly,” he said.
This year’s event has a new dynamic with the televised debate coming less than 48 hours before the straw poll is taking, creating a “high-risk, high-reward” lead in to vote than could involve a sizable number of Republicans still undecided on who their final choice will be, Schwarm said.
Sabato said generally he’s critical of straw polls because often they’re misleading and not representative of the electorate, but he makes an exception for the Ames event that takes place every four years.
“It is the premiere straw poll,” he said. “So much time and money and organization is put into it that it may be indicative to a certain degree of the outcome of the caucuses. It doesn’t predict the order, but it does give you a sense of the finalists. It separates the men from the boys and the women from the girls.”
And this year the timing couldn’t be better, Sabato added. “It’s the doldrums of summer. We’re ready for something exciting that has nothing to do with debt.”
Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of The Family Leader and a former GOP candidate for governor in Iowa, said this year’s Republican race is very fluid and support could shift based upon the candidates’ performances in Thursday’s televised debate.
Vander Plaats also noted that he won many straw polls in his three previous gubernatorial bids but he is not governor of Iowa.
“Straw polls have a short shelf life. You have to have a caucus strategy if you want to be president of the United States,” added Vander Plaats, who helped former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee engineer a surprise second-place finish in the 2007 Ames straw poll. After Huckabee’s second-place finish, Vander Plaats said, “Our next event was in Clinton, Iowa, probably two weeks later. We had two people show up.”
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