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Ames Matters

By Reid Wilson

On August 11, the eyes of the political pundit class will be focused on Ames, Iowa, smack in the middle of the first state in the nation to cast its votes for President of the United States. In Ames, on what will more likely than not be a sweltering day on the campus of Iowa State University, more than 25,000 Republican activists are expected to cast ballots in the quadrennial Republican Party straw poll. It is only a test, many political strategists insist, of the organizational strength of GOP presidential campaigns, but it is a test that matters: If flunked, this test will more than likely chase a few contenders from the race for the White House.

When the results are in, the media will use the event, approximately five months before the state's caucuses in January, to judge the state of the field. As Little League coaches around the nation tell their players, it's not whether the candidates win or lose, it's how they play the game. But in this game, no one is going for the sportsmanship award.

The most pressing issue at hand for the ten candidates running for the Republican presidential nomination is managing expectations. For some candidates, meeting or beating those expectations is worth as much as a win in a primary. Failing to meet them, on the other hand, can severely damage a campaign.

This year, it is former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney who needs a big win to even reach expectations. After former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Senator John McCain announced they would not participate in the straw poll, expectations for Romney, the only front-running candidate officially in the race to continue to participate, shot through the roof. As he may find out, "to go in as a leader isn't always the best place to be," said Iowa pollster Ann Selzer.

Other campaigns are trying to saddle Romney with the burden of an expected victory. "I anticipate Mitt Romney wins," says Republican strategist Bay Buchanan, currently working for Congressman Tom Tancredo, echoing what many strategists and pundits believe. "If he doesn't come in with numbers equivalent to what George Bush came in with," Buchanan said, "he's got something to answer for." Bush won 31% of the vote in 1999.

Even if he does win with an impressive total, says Selzer, Romney is unlikely to earn the large bounce that would ordinarily accompany the win. "If you win something where some people have chosen not to compete, it's sort of like winning the Moscow Olympics." If Romney wins, she said," he's not going to get as big a bounce because that's expected."

Romney has the money and organization to continue should the worst happen. "Ames is an important part of cultivating our organization as we make our way towards January," said Romney spokesman Kevin Madden. Does he worry about failing to meet expectations? "Worrying is only for people without a plan."

For candidates without the bank accounts to continue, Ames is much more important. They must carefully manage expectations so that, in whatever place they finish, they are seen as outperforming. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee has said he will have to reconsider his future in the race if he doesn't finish in the top two or three. Buchanan, setting the bar low, says her candidate, Tancredo, "will be in the top half at the straw poll." That means a finish of fifth or better. A spokeswoman for former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson tried to keep expectations low when she said her candidate will finish in the top half, but was undercut when Thompson told The Politico, "If I don't win, I'll be shocked."

While the future is uncertain for Huckabee and Thompson, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback's campaign will stick around "for the long haul," said campaign manager Rob Wasinger. Continuing Brownback's recent efforts to portray Romney as his main opponent, Wasinger noted the cost of the event. "This is kind of like David and Goliath," he said. "And we're David."

The event, run as a fundraiser by the state's Republican Party, always costs campaigns thousands of hard-raised dollars. Tent locations alone start at $15,000, and the $35 ticket price to get a ballot is rarely forked over by the person who will actually cast the vote. "Iowans don't like to buy their own tickets for the straw poll," said M.E. Sprengelmeyer, a political writer for the Rocky Mountain News. The campaigns will rent busses, contract the best barbeque joints in the state to feed their voters, and hire bands to keep people at their tents.

Brownback has contracted Famous Dave's Barbeque, and among the attractions to his tent will be Stephen McEveety, a producer of the 2004 movie "The Passion of the Christ." Romney is bringing in local bands and feeding his voters Hickory Park Barbeque. Tommy Thompson will offer Legends Restaurant Barbeque alongside a tent dedicated, says spokeswoman Danielle Chaplick, to healthy lifestyles.

If Romney does pull off a big win, as expected, the battle will be for second and third place. And despite their non-participation, Giuliani, McCain and former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson could play big roles. The Iowa Republican Party decided to include their names on the straw poll ballot, originally to shame them into participating. That decision was not popular with rival campaigns. "I would have preferred none of them be on the ballot," Buchanan said.

The three no-shows will perform worse than they would have had they participated, but, says Sprengelmeyer, they are likely to attract substantial votes. "Everyone that's below" the top candidates, he said, "who aren't even campaigning are going to have to seriously reevaluate whether they should stay in the race."

In a field with a well-defined top tier and a more evenly-balanced second tier, there will be some surprises. Based on his conversations with voters, Sprengelmeyer points to one scenario that would catch many by surprise. Ask a voter, he says, who is running on the GOP side. "They might come up with half the names, but Tommy Thompson is definitely one of them." Thompson has campaigned almost exclusively in Iowa and is pinning his hopes on the Hawkeye State. "He stands the most to gain from this process," agrees Selzer. Then again, she says, Thompson "has to do well in order to stay in the race."

A candidate's success will depend upon which sort of voters dominate the straw poll. If establishment Republicans control the event, Romney is likely to dominate, with solid performances from Giuliani and Fred Thompson. If voters go to vote for a cause, an outsider will perform better than expected. Buchanan, whose candidate is most readily identified with efforts to stop illegal immigration, hopes it is the latter. "People aren't just going to go" to Ames, she said, detailing a day that often includes hopping on a bus and driving several hours to cast a single ballot. "There has to be a cause."

The absence of McCain, Giuliani and Fred Thompson made some speculate that the Iowa straw poll won't matter. But in the middle of Congress' August recess, when there is little else on which to pontificate, pundits will make due with the results from Ames.

It is likely that staff members for a few campaigns will be looking for new jobs the following week, thanks to a poor showing. For others, especially the second tier candidates, a win, place or show could dramatically alter their position in the race. Every campaign calls the straw poll a "test of organization." More than any in the campaign so far, it is a test everyone must ace, but a test with a heavy and demanding curve.

Reid Wilson, an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics, formerly covered polls and polling for The Hotline, National Journal’s daily briefing on politics. Wilson’s work has appeared in National Journal, Hotline OnCall and the Arizona Capitol Times. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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