Today the people of Iowa will help determine the outcome of the 2012 presidential election through the Ames Straw Poll. While the poll does not officially give any candidates delegate votes toward the GOP presidential nomination, it is crucial for some candidate to gain legitimacy in a crowded race. In the past some candidates have dropped out weeks after performing poorly in the Ames Straw Poll, even though the Iowa Caucuses are still months away.
The legitimacy of the Ames Straw Poll has continually been debated since its inception in 1979. Any Iowan is allowed to vote, but they must travel to Ames in order to do so. In the past some have been accused of voting twice, but poll organizers have now tried to remedy through a number of measures. In 2007 voters were required to die their fingers after voting much like Iraqi voters did in their first free and fair election. Candidates are allowed to bus voters, and many of the well-organized campaigns typically do so. Finally, some candidates simply do not appear on the ballot. The most prominent exclusion this year is Governor Rick Perry (R-TX), who has yet to officially declare his candidacy.
Still, as Nate Silver of The New York Times notes, the Ames Straw Poll has a fairly good record of success in predicting the overall winner. There are exceptions of course, Pat Robertson won the poll in 1987 and never came close to winning the Republican nomination, but overall a finish of first or second in the Ames Straw Poll correlates well with a good finish in the overall race. President George W. Bush won the Ames Straw Poll in 1999, and eventual GOP nominee Bob Dole won in 1995.
The primary importance of the Ames Straw Poll is that it is first. In the slow news month of August political reporters quickly latch on to the results coming out of Ames. As a result, the winners get free publicity which can help them gain more volunteers and raise more money. Candidates who disappoint gain the dreaded “loser” label and may have a harder time convincing voters that they have a real chance at the nomination.
Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-Minn) may have the most to gain and lose in this year’s Ames Straw Poll. Bachmann has made Iowa the centerpiece of her campaign strategy, and she is considered one of the favorites to win. A finish outside the top three would likely be a blow to her campaign’s momentum.
Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) is also expected to finish strong. Unfortunately for the Paul campaign, a victory for him is likely to be dismissed by the media, right or wrong, as a sign of an effective campaign machine rather than a real chance at the GOP nomination.
Tim Pawlenty has struggled to move his poll numbers even after campaigning heavily in Iowa. If Pawlenty fails to perform well in the Ames Straw Poll it could further challenge the viability of his campaign.
Mitt Romney has tried to preemptively dismiss any poor showing by pretending he does not care about the results. In some ways this creates a “win-win” for Romney. If Romney finishes in the top three he can say he performed well without even really trying. If Romney does not gain many votes he can say that he would have done better had he chosen to campaign there.
Finally there is Rick Perry and Sarah Palin. Both of them will not even appear on the ballot which gives them the ultimate excuse for a poor result. The safest route in the Ames Straw Poll is simply to not play the game at all.
Much like all the early presidential contests, Ames means something but not everything. The winner will gain momentum which, if seized upon correctly, may propel them to the Republican nomination and even the White House. However, the results from Ames may also be completely overshadowed by the Iowa Caucuses or New Hampshire. In November 2012 we may look back at the results today as either the first sign of a successful candidacy, or another meaningless poll signifying nothing.