Rep. Ron Paul's tent at Saturday's Ames Straw Poll will feature a classic rock band, a "sliding dollar" inflatable slide, a Ben Bernanke-look alike in a dunk tank, and a face painter. If the Ames Straw Poll seems to be more like a county fair than a major electoral event, that's because in many ways it is.
Since 1979, the Ames Straw Poll has been a one day extravaganza put on by the Republican Party of Iowa in the August preceding an election year in which there is no GOP incumbent running. Republican candidates pay for space to pitch tents (Paul paid $31,000, the most of any candidate, for his prime real estate by the entrance) to host potential and established supporters, many of whom are trucked into Ames from other parts of the state. For a $30 entry fee (often paid by campaigns in exchange for support), attendees can mingle with candidates and hear speeches, after which, Iowa residents and state university students over the age of 16-and-a-half can vote for their favorite candidate. [Read more about the 2012 presidential election.]
The straw poll is often compared to a preseason football game. It has no technical bearing on the Iowa caucus or any other primary. Rather, it's a showcase of talent and possibility. The conventional wisdom goes that there are "three tickets out of Iowa"—that only the top three finishers in the Iowa caucus viably move on to the other primaries—and that placing in the top one or two spots in the straw poll secures you one of the tickets. But history shows the straw poll has a mixed predictive record: Three of the five staw poll winners have gone on to win the caucuses, and two of them won the Republican nomination. But it did little good for 2007's winner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney spent over $1 million to win the event, only to be overshadowed by second-place finisher former Gov. Mike Huckabee who went on to win the Iowa caucus.
Boston University's Tom Fiedler, who has studied the declining role of traditional party politics in presidential elections, says, "I don't think anybody, even in Iowa, is going to look seriously at what happens Saturday as an indication of what will be much more meaningful in the nominating process going down the line." He argues that social media, like Facebook and Twitter, enables candidates to reach out to supporters much more directly and efficiently than "old time politics" such as the Ames Straw Poll. "I don't think the idea of gathering on a fairground in Ames to eat barbecue or listen to country music is the way that people are going to be motivated … This will be something we look back at as a quaint custom."
That explains why Romney, who leads in both fundraising and many state polls, is skipping the event, as is former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Fiedler is probably correct that the correlation between the straw poll victor and caucus winner (let alone party nominee) has greatly diminished due to the evolving nature of campaigns. However there is more to the Ames Straw Poll. "It doesn't really indicate who Iowa Republicans want to be their president, it indicates who has the best base and can really bring their people out," says Stephen Wayne, a professor of presidential electoral politics at Georgetown University. Tracy Sefl, a Democratic strategist who grew up in Iowa, compares the poll to the "like" button on Facebook. It doesn't prove that voters are going to buy the product, but that candidates have already "made an impression and made it well." Neither general nor primary elections are won simply by turning out the candidate's most ardent supporters. But a strong showing can inject the sort of confidence in a campaign that attracts more fundraising, staff, volunteers, endorsements and media attention. [Vote now: Who is your pick for the 2012 GOP nomination?]
For all its possible awards, participating in the event comes with risk. Doing well—as the 2007 Romney case proves—does not mean a candidate will be the Iowa caucus winner. But doing poorly almost guarantees a candidate will not. Former Vice President Dan Quayle was a well regarded Republican when he entered the 2000 presidential campaign. But his poor performance at the straw poll forced him out of the race as it proved that he could not stand up to George W. Bush.
Romney's decision to skip the event does make some sense. If he doesn't place highly, his absence from the event makes a perfect excuse. If he still polls well, then his campaign can argue that he has wide appeal, even though he didn't put the time and money into the event that his competitors did.
Yet according to Peter Roff, Republican strategist and contributing editor to U.S. News and World Report, this strategy isn't a winning one either. "You lose if you show up and don't meet expectations. You lose if you don't show up—are you afraid of big things already? The winners are the people who outperform expectations." Sefl agrees: "If you are already shying away from big scale events, voters will question you." Avoiding Ames also takes you out of the general conversation fueled by 24-hour-news-cable. As GOP strategist and U.S. News and World Report contributor Doug Heye points out, this happened to Mayor Rudy Giuliani in 2007 when he ignored Iowa to focus on other states.
Texas Gov.Rick Perry is also skipping Ames. But he will not miss out on the headlines, as he plans to formally announce his entry into the race in South Carolina before heading off to New Hampshire. He will only head to Iowa Sunday, after the straw poll, to speak at a Republican Party fundraiser where he will be joined by Rep. Michele Bachmann (who also is vying for the Christian conservative vote). Says Roff, "Rick Perry renders the Ames Straw Poll irrelevant. The big story is then Perry."
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Corrected on 08/15/11: An earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.