Thursday, May 21, 2015

Straw Poll Crumbling

The Ames Boone Straw Poll takes a big hit this morning, with 2008 caucus winner Mike Huckabee announcing he will not participate.

The Huckster cites much the same reason Jeb Bush did last week in opting out: "I have decided to forgo taking part in the Iowa straw poll — or any other straw poll — and will instead focus our campaign's attention and resources on the Iowa caucuses."

Huckabee's dropout - an odd term to use since he hasn't actually announced his candidacy - is a big blow to the GOP fundraiser.

The 2007 straw poll was Huckabee's breakout moment. Before "Ames" - I still see "Straw Poll" and "Ames" used interchangably in national media despite the event's move this year - before Ames Huckabee was languishing in the single digits and splitting evangelical support with Sam Brownback. Huckabee's second behind Mitt Romney made him THE social conservative choice, and within days the crowds at Brownback's events vanished. He lingered on two more months, but the straw poll was the real end.

Without that straw poll "win," or with Brownback edging Huckabee instead of the other way around, 2008 plays out a lot differently.

Craig Robinson notes that candidates have a de facto deadline a week from today, when Iowa Republicans host a straw poll organizational meeting. The memo says: "Your organization’s participation in the May 28 meeting will serve as an indication of your organization’s participation in the Straw Poll.”

Expect several more dropouts in the next few days.

So who plays?

The asterisk candidates. With the event downscaled and the infamous "land auction" and food tend-palooza curtailed, the entry cost for candidates is lowered. It's also a shot to distinguish yourself from the other also-rans and maybe make it into CNN's top tier "real" debate instead of the NIT Debate For Some Dudes.

The big question mark is Rand Paul. The event is tailor made for his kind of intense support: you have to devote the full day and travel across the state. But there's nothing to win against the asterisks. And as Craig Robinson rightly points out, Paul "and his advisors are probably not all that keen in helping RPI out." Ron Paul supporters won control of the state party organization in the 2012 caucuses, but were purged by the party regulars in 2014. Above all else, the straw poll is a party fundraising event, and Paul's supporters aren't necessarily Republican Party supporters.

The other question mark is whether the party lists the names of non-participants on the ballot. This was done in 2007 and 2011, seemingly to teach John McCain and Jon Huntsman a lesson. Both finished below 1 percent.

But with a field this big, a non-participant could easily top several asterisk candidates, or behind a write-in if that's allowed, as it was for Rick Parry in 2011. Does that push them out of the race? Maybe that's the role the straw poll plays this year.

One thing's clear: No one is going to make the Tim Pawlenty mistake this year.

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