Mitt Romney’s refusal to participate in the Republican Party of Iowa’s straw poll in Ames doesn’t seem to be hurting the event. Four years ago, the decision by Rudy Giuliani and John McCain to skip the straw poll put the whole event in doubt, but this year, the news about Romney seemed to be expected.
Just like four years ago, the current national frontrunner has chosen not to participate in the event. National political pundits and Romney’s operatives have said it is the right move for a frontrunner to make, but what Romney’s absence really creates is a stronger, more conservative alternative that he will have to face down the road.
We are always peppered with news stories about various straw polls, but make no mistake, the Ames Straw Poll stands apart from the rest. While straw polls like the one taken at CPAC, or the one that will take place this weekend at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, tell us what a few thousand hyper-activists or college kids think, the Ames Straw Poll is different because it’s proven to be an excellent indicator since it’s limited to Iowans, and the number of people who vote in it dwarf all the other straw polls out there.
Four years ago, 14,000 Iowans voted in Ames. That’s an impressive number when you consider that the national frontrunners chose not to participate. The number of votes in 2007 was down from the record high set in 1999 when over 23,000 votes were cast. The reduction in votes cast at the event was a result of uncertainty when Giuliani and McCain didn’t participate, as well as much tighter restrictions on voting than in previous events.
The reason why the number of votes cast at the Ames Straw Poll is significant is because it represents a large percentage of the overall votes at the caucuses themselves. In 2007, almost 12 percent of all people who participated in the caucuses voted at the Ames Straw Poll. In 1999, that number was a staggering 26 percent.
One can only laugh at those who of speak of the Ames Straw Poll’s insignificance but are quick to quote the most recent national polls that tell you nothing more than the name ID of a the candidates. I’ll start paying attention to national polls when we start nominating candidates for president by a national primary.
The Ames Straw Poll is significant and worthy of the news coverage it receives because it has been an outstanding indicator of what will happen in the caucuses. In 2008, the top two finishers in the Straw Poll accounted for over 59 percent of the caucus vote. In 1999, the top two finishers at the Straw Poll accounted for over 71 percent of the caucus vote.
Those simple facts are the main reasons why candidates choose to participate in an event, even though it could end their campaign. Those candidates who don’t participate in the event usually do so because they have something to hide. In the case of Mitt Romney, he probably couldn’t turn out the number of people he did four years ago. If he actually allowed that to happen, the media would have a hay-day writing his campaign’s obituary.
Even with Romney’s absence, the Ames Straw Poll will once again likely be the largest political event in the country this year. It will also likely forecast the two candidates who will receive the bulk of the caucus votes in February.
Yesterday, the Republican Party of Iowa held its second Straw Poll meeting. Next week they will auction off lots to the campaigns. Besides Romney and Jon Huntsman, who’s yet to step foot in Iowa, the rest of the Republican field is indicating that they will participate. Even Newt Gingrich sent a volunteer to yesterday’s meeting.
Sure, the Ames Straw Poll is a risky annoyance to whoever the frontrunner happens to be, but it will create an even bigger annoyance for a frontrunner who skips it because the Straw Poll will elevate another candidate who will become the conservative alternative to the frontrunner. I don’t know what’s riskier – skipping the Straw Poll, or giving your opponents a chance to shine in the spotlight due to your absence.
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