The Ames straw poll results are in and the battle for the spin is on. Mitt Romney chalked up a win with 4516 votes, 31.5% of votes cast. Now the battle is on to determine bragging rights and assess what if anything the results really mean.
Before analyzing this Saturday’s results some perspective is in order. There have only been four Ames straw polls, although from the buzz of media pundits one would think it was a decades old institution. In 1979 George H.W. Bush won Ames and then the Iowa caucus but lost the nomination to Ronald Reagan. In 1987 Pat Robertson won Ames, Bob Dole won the Iowa caucus and the nomination. In 1995 Bob Dole and Phil Gramm tied in Ames, and Dole went on to win the Iowa caucus and the nomination. In 1999 George W. Bush won Ames, the Iowa caucus and the nomination.
Given this history, Larry J. Sabato cautions, “ These events are often deceptive, and they do not necessarily project the January results, despite the claims of the sponsors. They receive far too much attention, out of kilter with their real significance.” Doubts as to whether the Ames results really mean anything will be amplified because of the rather disappointing turnout: only 14,203 votes cast, down over 9000 votes from 1999.
So a victory in Ames has not been the clearest indicator of success in the nomination process. Even if we suspend belief and assume the Ames straw poll is a reliable predictive of the eventual GOP nominee, when is a win a win? In 1999 Bush won 7418 of 23,685 votes for 31.3% of the total. In 1995 Dole and Phil Gram each got 2582 votes out of 10, 958 cast for a total of 23.6% each. In 1987 Pat Robertson got 1293 of 3843 votes cast for a total of 33.6% of the vote.
Romney won but his critics and rivals are quick to try to disparage his win. They make three points: 1) his margin was not as substantial as it should have been considering Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain did not compete; 2) the low turnout showed organizational weakness on his part and 2) the exorbitant amount Romney spent suggests the voting result is not a true indication of voter preference, merely the result of plying voters with food, drink, and “freebie” gifts and transportation.
As for the margin of victory, Professor Steffen Schmidt of Iowa State University, noted Ames straw poll guru, in response to my inquiry before the vote stated “32% or better is fine.” Similarly Charlie Cook suggested that he needed a “ten-point spread to impress people.” Considering Romney won by 13% with 31% of the vote, a fair assessment would be that he won with ease but didn’t devastate the relatively weak field.
With regard to the turnout, a rival aide had this harsh assessment: “Tonight was – by all measures – a big loss for the Romney team. Not only did they have to buy the votes they received, the turnout operation they have been crowing about for months was by all accounts a complete and total failure.” In reality Romney did win, but the total numbers, just like the percentage of votes, suggest a small wave rather than a tsunami of support.
As for the contention that the straw poll results are more the result of legalized bribery than true voter sentiment, the reality is that straw polls are a test of organization and effort. While not a pristine test of voter preference they do test whether a candidate’s organization is firing on all cylinders and whether the candidate has devoted himself to working at a retail level. These are significant factors in predicting success in a presidential race. Based on this effort, it is clear that Romney will not suffer for lack of organizational prowess.
In sum, Romney can be relieved that he racked up a win and gave his organization a test drive for January. His rivals – both those who competed and those who did not – come away relieved that his results were not more impressive.
As for the other candidates, the biggest winner is Mike Huckabee, who exceeded expectations and delivered 2587 and 18.1% of the vote. He can now separate himself from the also rans, compete for donor dollars and live to fight on in Iowa in January and in the now early South Carolina primary where he will be an attractive choice for southerners and especially social conservatives.
The Ames straw poll also served to winnow out the field and the candidates with disappointing results —- Brownback with 15.3%(after a massive commitment of time and money), Tom Tancredo with 13.7%, Tommy Thompson wit 7.3% and Duncan Hunter with 174 votes — can be expected to gracefully bow out sooner rather than later, making future debates less crowded.
Finally, another loser in Ames may have been negative campaigning. Brownback who attacked Romney heavily and personally on abortion did poorly. Romney, who strangely picked a fight with Giuliani over immigration in the last week, may have gotten off his largely positive message. If so, it should be a warning to all candidates that, at least for now, GOP voters are looking for a positive message, a clear articulation of conservative principles and a messenger who stands a chance to prevent Hillary Clinton from becoming the next president. Coming out of Ames, the savvy survivors will focus on just those things.