In just over a week, thousands of Republican activists from across Iowa will descend on Ames for the Republican presidential straw poll. The exercise will have no concrete bearing on who ultimately wins the GOP presidential nomination. In fact, it’s often derided as a political beauty contest with candidates practically bribing participants to support them with offers of free bus rides, food, entertainment and air-conditioned tents.
“It’s a media event is what it is,” said Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University in Ames. “If there were no reporters, it would be like the sound of a tree falling in the forest and nobody’s around to hear it.”
But as the highest-profile gathering of the presidential campaign season so far, the Ames straw poll could prove crucial in establishing the media narrative and influencing GOP donors in the six months leading up to the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses.
“I don’t think it’s a beauty pageant at all,” said Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Republican Party of Iowa who now edits the Iowa Republican website. “I think what it is is an early test of a campaign organization’s strength. … The exercise that these campaigns are going through to identify and then turn out people is the same thing that they need to do for the caucuses.”
No candidates have more on the line in Iowa than Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty. Minnesota’s dueling presidential aspirants are depending on a strong performance in the state to vault them into the realm of top GOP contenders for the 2012 nomination.
Bachmann has stressed her Waterloo roots and is widely considered the front-runner heading into the straw poll. “Everything I needed to know, I learned in Iowa,” the three-term congresswoman said in officially announcing her campaign in June.
But Pawlenty has the balance of campaign ground forces on his side. Over the course of two years, he has built an unparalleled organization across the state. This week, for example, he announced 29 county chairs in the state. The co-chairman of the state Republican Party, Jim Kurtenbach, resigned his post to support Pawlenty. But so far that organizational work has failed to translate into traction in the polls, with Pawlenty still mired in the single digits.
Four years ago, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney easily triumphed in the Ames straw poll. But it was former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — with a surprise second place showing — whose campaign received a needed jolt of momentum and media attention. “He only beat Sam Brownback by 400 votes, but you would think he beat him by 4,000,” Robinson recalled. Huckabee went on to win the Iowa caucuses and briefly emerge as a serious contender for the 2008 nomination.
The goal, in other words, is to exceed expectations. Focusing serious attention on Iowa and failing to break through can prove devastating for a campaign. Four years ago Democrat Christopher Dodd notoriously moved his family into a Des Moines apartment and enrolled his daughter in kindergarten. But he managed to capture just 2 percent of the vote in the caucuses, and his campaign was toast.
Perhaps accordingly, Pawlenty’s campaign has been playing down its strength. In June the Daily Beast reported that the two-term Minnesota governor had budgeted $1.75 million for the straw poll, suggesting an all-out push for victory. But campaign spokesman Alex Conant calls that figure “laughable.” “We think we need to show progress in Ames, and we’re confident that we will,” Conant said, pointing out that Pawlenty was sixth in the Des Moines Register poll released in June. “We haven’t put a number on this. But I think we need to move from the back of the pack closer to the front of the pack.”
Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, is impressed by Pawlenty’s organization, citing the presence of veteran Iowa GOP strategists like Chuck Larson and Nicole Schlinger on his team. Bystrom figures that he needs to finish at least third to remain a viable candidate. “The straw poll gives him an excellent opportunity to flex that organizational muscle,” she said. “The straw poll’s all about organizational muscle. If they’re not able to do that, that is a real problem for his campaign.”
Robinson is less forgiving about Pawlenty’s political calculus. He believes that the candidate needs a bigger boost to shake off a tough summer during which he performed poorly at a televised debate and has been dogged by rumors of tepid fundraising. “I think he has to finish first or a close second,” Robinson said. “Finishing well doesn’t really help the Pawlenty campaign shake off its problems. They really need a victory.”
While Pawlenty is relying on two years of shoe-leather work and organizational strength, Bachmann is countering with glitz. Her campaign has put together an arena-worthy stable of talent to perform at her gathering in Ames. The roster of performers includes country stars Randy Travis and Richie McDonald (of Lonestar renown) and Christian artist Charles Billingsley. Bachmann is running ads on conservative websites touting the musical lineup at her event. The only mention of the candidate is in the obligatory disclosure tag on the ads. That strategy is partly reflective of Bachmann’s later entry in the race, and therefore weaker organizational structure, but it’s also reflective of the ethos of the straw poll.
“It is largely sort of political entertainment and political theater,” Schmidt noted. “So she’s on the right track saying we’re not going to hit you with 100-page white papers.”
The expectations for Bachmann are also different. Romney is skipping the straw poll, and other potentially formidable candidates thought to be still weighing presidential runs (e.g., Sarah Palin and Rick Perry) aren’t on the ballot. That means anything less than victory will be perceived as a setback for Bachmann.
“Her expectations are no different from what Mitt Romney’s were four years ago,” Robinson said. “People rightfully expect her to win this event. If she doesn’t win this event, I think it will be a deadly blow to her campaign as the field changes and as we begin to focus on the actual nomination.”
With expectations high for both Minnesotans, it sets up a potentially critical early showdown. Most political observers believe that there’s insufficient room in the contest for both of them to emerge as top-tier candidates. That likely explains why the two rivals have been exchanging potshots in recent weeks. Pawlenty derided Bachmann’s “nonexistent” congressional record. Bachmann shot back by attacking Pawlenty’s fiscal management as governor. In the end, though, it will simply come down to who can get their people to Ames.
“Pawlenty has the better apparatus,” Robinson said. “He has the more seasoned staff. He has what it takes to actually turn people out. He’s organizing while Bachmann is kind of living off of celebrity and hype. That’s the battle that we have going on here.”