Monday, May 21, 2007

For Republicans, Iowa Straw Poll Could Offer Some Answers

By Stuart Rothenberg

You wouldn’t know it from the media coverage — or, rather, the lack of media coverage — but it is less than three months until the Aug. 11 Iowa straw poll in Ames, the GOP’s first major test of candidate strength for the party’s White House hopefuls.

No delegates are at stake and it’s wise to view the event first as a state party fundraiser and only second as a test of the candidates. But the straw poll is worth watching anyway.

It’s true that the results of the first straw polls were a bit misleading — then-Sens. Phil Gramm (Texas) and Bob Dole (Kan.) tied in the straw poll in 1995, but Gramm drew less than 10 percent at the caucuses and was a nonfactor in the race — and they attracted few participants. But the 2000 turnout in excess of 23,000 Iowans (not quite a quarter of the expected caucus turnout) demonstrated that the event has become of considerable interest in the state, and the straw vote often has been an early warning sign of candidate strength or weakness.

In 1987, for example, Pat Robertson finished a shocking first in the straw vote (held in September that year), besting second-place finisher Dole and the sitting vice president, George H.W. Bush. In the caucuses the following January, Dole finished first, ahead of runner-up Robertson and third-place Bush. Bush’s weakness in the straw poll presaged his showing in January.

In the 1996 presidential race, Dole’s relatively weak showing at the straw poll was echoed in the caucuses, which he won only narrowly over Pat Buchanan. Four years later, George W. Bush won the straw poll 31 percent to 21 percent over businessman Steve Forbes, and the then-governor of Texas went on to win the caucuses by an almost identical margin, 41 percent to 30 percent, over Forbes.

The straw poll shows which candidates have put together the best organizations in the state. Given that the January caucuses also put a premium on organization, the Aug. 11 event almost certainly tells observers something about the caucuses.

Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander was so dispirited about his sixth-place showing at the 1999 straw poll that he dropped out of the race just two days after the event. Alexander, who is now finishing his first term in the Senate and is expected to win a second term next year, had finished third in the 1996 Iowa caucuses.

There are so many interesting storylines to this year’s straw poll that it’s hard to know where to begin.

First, who is going to play, and who might well pass? Nine of the 10 Republicans who participated in the Reagan Library debate on May 3 seem certain to participate in the straw poll, with only former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani hedging. In addition, former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.) hasn’t made a decision about the race, so he’s a question mark for Ames. (The timetable of former Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia for making a decision about running appears to leave him out of the Ames mix, too.)

Giuliani initially signaled he would participate, but aides quickly backed off and indicated the campaign had not made a decision. If Giuliani bypasses the straw poll, it would surely raise questions about his commitment to the caucuses, which would fuel rumors that the former mayor may take a pass on both Iowa and New Hampshire, beginning his bid in Florida on Jan. 29.

If both Thompson and Giuliani take a pass on the straw poll, will it devalue the event? Could Giuliani bypass the straw poll and still compete in the caucuses? And if Giuliani does compete at the straw poll, will any of the three current favorites — Arizona Sen. John McCain, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Giuliani — fail to finish in the top three spots?

Second, there’s the “best of the rest” storyline. While McCain and Romney are widely seen as the cream of the crop in terms of Iowa organization, a flock of second-tier hopefuls will be competing to see whether one of them — and which one — might emerge as the conventional wisdom’s long shot in the race.

An unexpectedly strong showing by Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.) or former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee might well give them some traction into the fall. On the other hand, Brownback seems to be basing his candidacy on a surprise in Iowa, and if he disappoints at the straw poll, he could well be out of the race days later.

Third, there’s the question of whether the second-tier candidates take enough straw votes away from one of the frontrunners to change the outcome of the poll and affect the post-poll assessment.

Since the Ames event is a poll, not a true election, ideologically motivated voters are more likely to make a statement by supporting Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) or former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, effectively wasting their vote and taking votes away from a candidate they may ultimately support in January. Will one of the also-rans be a spoiler?

The August GOP event certainly doesn’t guarantee anything about who will win the January caucuses or the Republican presidential nomination. But the national media will cover it heavily and the straw poll results could tell us a good deal about the candidates and shape the race as it goes into the fall.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 17, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.