They will come from near and far, the most dedicated of Iowa Republicans, for a day of speeches, barbecue, and music. Most important, they will cast ballots in the first major test of the 2012 GOP presidential field: the Aug. 13 Iowa straw poll.
Granted, the vote – which takes place at Iowa State University in Ames – is nonbinding. Three of the nine candidates on the ballot that day aren’t even competing: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the national front-runner for the Republican nomination; former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.; and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
But for the six taking part, who are the more conservative contenders in the field, it will matter a lot. Those who fare poorly may find that fundraising dries up and they have to drop out. Those who do well could find the wind in their sails – and a fresh influx of campaign cash – as they head into the Republican Party’s first-in-the-nation nominating contest, the Iowa caucuses, early next year.
“The Ames straw poll is a good thing, because it shows what candidates have or don’t have in terms of organizational muster,” says Steve Scheffler, an Iowa Republican national committeeman and Christian conservative leader. “Based on past history, I’m guessing it will winnow the field.”
A three-way battle is shaping up among Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. A new poll of likely Iowa GOP caucusgoers, released Monday by Rasmussen Reports, shows Congresswoman Bachmann in the lead with 22 percent, Congressman Paul at 16 percent, and Mr. Pawlenty at 11 percent. (Mr. Romney came in at 22 percent and Texas Gov. Rick Perry is at 12 percent, but neither is competing in the straw poll.) But Pawlenty could in fact do quite well, and even challenge Bachmann for first place.
Pawlenty’s big A-list campaign team in Iowa and organizational strength mean lots of Pawlenty buses heading to Ames. (Just how many, the campaign won’t reveal.) The campaign’s recent hire of Sarah Huckabee Sanders was a coup. Four years ago, she helped orchestrate the surprise second-place finish in Ames for her dad, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, by reaching out to Iowa’s extensive homeschooling network.
Paul’s ace is a committed cadre of supporters who will drive to the ends of the earth – or at least to Ames, the geographic center of Iowa – to cast ballots for him. His campaign also won’t say how many people are signed up to go, but one Des Moines-area Republican activist sees much more enthusiasm in Iowa for Paul’s libertarian/tea party brand than when the Texan ran in 2008.
This matters, because to take part in the straw poll one has to be an Iowa resident and vote in person.
Bachmann, a native of Iowa and a tea-party firebrand, also generates enthusiasm among Iowa conservatives – but she entered the race late and not all that organized. Still, as a champion of homeschooling, she, too, is reaching out to that and other Christian conservative networks. There are other signs that she’s getting her act together.
“Bachmann is in hyperdrive on trying to get people out to the straw poll,” says John Mayne, a lawyer in Sioux City, in conservative northwestern Iowa, who is undecided in the race. “The robo-dialing is almost oppressive. I think the phone rings twice a day from Bachmann. I don’t hear from anyone else.”
How these top three emerge from Ames depends in part on expectations. Bachmann is expected to finish first; therefore, anything less will take some of the shine off her star. The charismatically challenged Pawlenty has kept expectations low – he often mentions his "back of the pack" polling – but realistically a less-than-second-place finish for him could be problematic and may deny him a needed fundraising boost. A first-place finish for Paul would cement his reputation for skill at winning straw polls, but it would not necessarily recast his image as a niche candidate.
The Romney factor
Notable for his absence is Mr. Romney. He is taking part in a candidate debate Aug. 11, also in Ames, but will have no official presence at the day-long festival of politics that the straw poll – a fundraiser for the Iowa GOP – has become: no free entry tickets or bus ride there, no air-conditioned tent with free Hickory Park barbecue, no entertainment (Bachmann is bringing in Randy Travis), no speech in the big auditorium.
In 2007, Romney spent $1.5 million in an all-out effort to win Ames – which he did – but lost the Iowa caucuses five months later to Mr. Huckabee. This time, his supporters say, he has nothing to prove; better to conserve his resources.
Romney still polls well in Iowa, leading to speculation about a stealth operation on his behalf at Ames. Romney backers will certainly be there, waving the flag. Romney says he’s not skipping Iowa altogether, as is the other sort-of-moderate in the race, Mr. Huntsman. Romney’s just keeping expectations low for the caucuses. Soon thereafter, New Hampshire will hold its primary, which Romney must win to remain a viable candidate, analysts say.
Romney is also reading the handwriting on the wall. Since the 2008 cycle, “social conservatives have taken over the Iowa Republican Party,” says Dianne Bystrom, a political scientist at Iowa State. “Republicans in Iowa are a much more diverse group than what gets covered in the media. But given the ... state of politics in Iowa, Romney’s strategy is a smart one.”
If all goes according to Romney’s plan, the nomination race will boil down to him and an alternative. But the field may not be complete yet.
The Perry factor
By summer’s end, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is expected to enter the race – a move that would shake up the contest and make the Iowa straw poll feel like ancient history. Given Governor Perry’s charisma, fundraising chops, long executive experience, and record of job growth, he could be a formidable competitor. Or, untested on the national stage, he could stumble out of the gate and become another Fred Thompson. He is the former Tennessee senator who, drafted into running last time, turned in a lackluster performance before dropping out.
Political strategist Craig Schoenfeld, hired to run the Iowa portion of the biggest “draft Perry” effort, rejects the Thompson warnings. News reports tell him that Perry is taking steps toward running, such as contacting potential donors. “He’s doing his due diligence,” says Mr. Schoenfeld of Americans for Rick Perry (ARP), which has no contact with Perry. “He’ll be in it to win it.”
ARP has eight paid staff in Iowa (including Schoenfeld), who have been talking up Perry with Republicans at local committee meetings, fundraisers, and festivals. Perry’s name is not on the ballot, but other draft-Perry groups are urging a write-in effort at Ames. ARP staff and volunteers, for their part, are focused on identifying Perry supporters and urging them to keep an open mind in the caucuses.
Caucus crystal ball: anybody’s guess
Iowa Republicans take their job seriously. They know that, between the straw poll and the caucuses, they have the power to knock out candidates – or give them the rocket fuel to mount a credible campaign. So, many Iowans take their time deciding whom to support – and polling shows that a large percentage of Republicans are undecided or can change candidates.
For a long shot like former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, hope lives. At a town-hall event in Osceola, Iowa, Mr. Santorum spoke to the 14 audience members – all senior citizens – on freedom, the sanctity of life, and “Obamacare.” But it wasn’t clear that he closed the sale with anyone.
“It’s between him and Pawlenty,” said a retired nurse, who declined to give her name. “They’re similar in character and what they stand for. I just don’t want Obama back in.”
“I’m waiting for Rick Perry, see what he has to say,” said another attendee, Marilyn Dorland of Osceola.
By late July, Santorum aide Jamie Johnson said the campaign had 30 buses and 1,500 people signed up to go to Ames. With 10,000 to 13,000 people expected to attend, a few thousand votes could win it. But if Santorum finishes outside the top three, as expected, it’s not clear he’ll have the funds to keep going. Ditto businessman Herman Cain. Another long shot is Rep. Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan, who entered the race only on July 2.
Still, this is Iowa. “Field of Dreams” wasn’t set here for nothing.