The August straw poll in Ames, Iowa is the first unofficial contest on the presidential campaign calendar.
Though no delegates are on the line candidates have invested tens of thousands of campaign dollars on an event that is not much more than a shameless money grab by the Iowa GOP and the Hawkeye State’s political operatives.
The straw poll has had a winnowing effect on the Republican field. Four years ago former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson and Kansas US Senator Sam Brownback’s candidacies came to an end after disappointing showings.
Eight years prior, ex-Red Cross chief Libby Dole, former Vice-President Dan Quayle and ex-Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander ended their White House bids after the straw poll.
Going into the 2011 gathering of Republican activists, buzzards are circling over the campaign of ex-Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who has yet to break out of the lower tier of candidates despite his organizational strength and relatively strong conservative and governmental credentials.
The Minnesotan’s geographic advantage was trumped by the entry of Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, whose candidacy began to surge in the polls during the same debate where Pawlenty failed to assert himself as the alternative to GOP front runner and ex-Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
Can Pawlenty survive a poor third place finish in Ames and Texas governor Rick Perry’s expected entry into the race? Probably not. Anything short of coming in second is going to put Pawlenty’s presidential aspirations on life support. Pawlenty is making a substantial investment in the straw poll and he needs to realize a significant return.
Otherwise, it’s a short drive north.
Bachmann is expected to win the straw poll; coming in second would be considered a disappointment, especially with Romney officially staying out of it.
Romney publicly said he would not participate in the contest- in contrast to the considerable sum he plowed into luxury buses to haul in supporters from across the state in 2007.
Romney is right to be leery about putting too many of his eggs in the Iowa basket as the wheels began to fly off his campaign in the cornfields at the hands of the underfunded but charismatic Mike Huckabee. The Baptist preacher/ex-Arkansas governor scored a surprising second place finish in the straw poll and then won the actual caucuses a few months later.
As expected Perry is looking to play the spoiler by ignoring the Iowa GOP chieftains and creating his own newsmaking events in the early states of South Carolina and New Hampshire. The Texas governor, who has been less coy about a presidential run, is expected to expound on his candidate status this weekend.
With the straw poll not expecting to generate any big news due to Romney’s absence, Perry’s media coverage is almost certain to steal some of Bachmann’s thunder without blowing the absurd amounts of money candidates spent on “renting” premium frontage.
The Ron Paul forces will once again make a show of force at the straw poll though it would be surprising if the libertarian finished in the top three. Since participants must be Iowans, the legion of Paulistas who travel across the country rolling up easy straw poll wins at other Republican events for their hero will be frustrated in Ames.
Despite having a large force of out of state volunteers on the ground (one of the images from the previous straw poll is that of random Paulists stoically holding their candidate’s signs in the midst of a large empty parking lot), manpower doesn’t equal votes.
Paul just nudged past Tommy Thompson in the 2007 straw poll by 2 percentage points to place a distant fifth.
For the increasingly shrinking campaigns of ex-Pennsylvania US Senator Rick Santorum, one-time Godfathers Pizza executive Herman Cain and ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Ames won’t matter much as they’re already living off the land. However if any of the three were to slip past Pawlenty, it would be fatal to the Minnesotan’s candidacy while providing a second gasp of air in a political room that is running out of oxygen.
Since Congressman Thaddeus McCotter and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman are just launching their campaigns, they’ll be immune from bad news out of Ames but need to figure out a way to prevent their nascent efforts from being engulfed by Perry’s entry.