The Ames Straw Poll was on Saturday, the unofficial first start to a presidential campaign if you’re a Republican. Depending on what your personal view is of straw polls, it has varying degrees of influence on campaigns, as well as what kind of candidate Iowans want to see. This year, over 16,000 participated in the straw poll, with Michelle Bachmann (R-Minnesota) winning in a close contest over Ron Paul (R-Texas). The two candidates combined for more than 50% of the vote, leaving the other seven participants in the dust.
But how much does the straw poll really matter? After all, its a voluntary survey of anybody who is willing to pay $30 can vote in, and big-hitters like Texas governor Rick Perry and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney decided to not take part in (Mr. Romney was included by vote of the Iowa Republican Party and Mr. Perry made it as a write-in). Yet, the dismal showing by former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who had been struggling to stay relevant, led him to bow out of the race the next day, so clearly this poll has enough weight to force candidates out early, and Mr. Perry’s roughly 718 write-in votes was very good considering he declared his candidacy that day.
If you’re a Ron Paul supporter, there are two ways you can look at his second-place finish. The “glass half-full” view is that it’s a big accomplishment to finish within 160 votes of Michelle Bachmann, who is the home-town favorite having been born in Iowa and is widely expected to carry the state in the primary. That kind of performance would make any campaign team happy, and should cement Dr. Paul’s place among the top-tier of candidates. The downside to the second-place finish is that it was in a straw poll, which is Dr. Paul’s best event, and his first second-place finish since last year’s SRLC conference in New Orleans. Also, since the poll wasn’t just for registered Republicans, his vote strength may’ve come from independents who may not participate in the caucus in February, which raises doubts on whether or not he is as politically strong as his second-place finish would have you believe.
Straw polls are all about organizing your faithful followers to make a strong showing, and Dr. Paul supporters are some of the most determined in the field. Ms. Bachmann’s, though, are just as determined, as is evident by the close finish on Saturday, and could potentially close caucus if the straw poll is an accurate indicator of how the caucuses will go. Dr. Paul proved he can place well in straw polls, but whether or not he can parlay that into electoral victory in February is uncertain.
Make no mistake about it, the campaigns are now going to get fierce, but the straw poll has shown who the main contenders are. It may not be an accurate indicator of who the winner will be, but it does reveal who has the grassroots strength to run a long campaign, and who has a devoted enough base to win in February, and maybe even in November.