With the Ames Straw Poll version 2007 coming up in roughly 100 days, now is as good of time as ever to look at what this massive political event is, what it means, and what it takes to win it.
History of the Poll
The Ames Straw Poll began in 1979 and has continued every year preceding a competitive election (1987, 1995, and 1999) for a total of four times. The upcoming poll on August 11, 2007, therefore will be the fifth Ames Straw Poll held.
Even though the poll dates back nearly three decades, it was only in 1999 that it began to take on the significance it has now. Until that most recent straw poll, charges of cheating ran rampant at the event (voters would have their hands stamped, run into the bathroom to wash the ink off, and go vote again), meaning that no one took the results too seriously. In 1999, the Iowa GOP officials began using indelible ink that couldn’t be washed off as well as posting voting monitors at the voting areas and in all the bathrooms to ensure more reliable results.
At the last straw poll, George W Bush won with 31% of the vote. He would, of course, go on to win the nomination, but such foretelling is not a historical definite at the event. For instance, Bush 41 won the first straw poll in 1979 and Reagan ended up with the nomination, and in 1987 Pat Robertson won the contest but lost the nomination to Bush. Now that the voting is fairer and more reliable, though, some people argue that the results are a more significant barometer of a candidate’s success.
What it Means and How to Win
It’s the first real test of candidates on two different levels: organization and support. A win in Ames generally means you’ve succeeded in both of those arenas. And it also means you’ve succeeded in raising extravagant amounts of cash prior to the event.
Consider these statistics: Dubya spent $825,000 on the event in 1999 and walked away with first place. Steve Forbes spent over $2 million for his second place finish. What did they spend the money on?
A better question might be what didn’t they spend the money on. Tickets to the event in 1999 were $25 apiece, which all the campaigns gladly paid for in return for a vote. Parking cost money, which again, the campaigns paid for - if you even drove your own vehicle and didn’t take one of the free buses the campaigns chartered. Each campaign had tents outside the main hall for which they paid money - increasing in price the closer to the hall the tent space was (the apex being Bush’s tent, which was closest to the hall and cost him $63,000). At each tent, the campaigns offered food and drinks as well as live music from famous musicians, all free. Steve Forbes even hosted a carnival of sorts, complete with children’s rides that he rented and set up. All in the quest to attract voters.
Truth be told, the real winner of the Ames Straw Poll is the Iowa GOP which hosts the event as its annual fundraiser.
This should be instructive when thinking about how to win the poll now, in 2007. If Bush spent nearly a million dollars and Forbes nearly two million eight years ago, one can only imagine how much the campaigns will spend on the event this year. That does not bode well for poorly funded campaigns such as Tommy Huckback, Gilmore, Paul, or Tancredo. And it says something to the chances of a late-comer such as Fred Thompson succeeding in such an environment.
Of course, there are always going to be the die hards that will pay their own tickets, drive their own cars, vote, and go home all without being tied to a campaign, but the vast majority of the voters there will be there thanks to candidates’ generosity.
But, as mentioned above, organization is only one half of the coin. You can’t very well pay for people’s tickets to the event if you can’t find people who support you enough to go in the first place and sit through hours of speeches and give up their entire Saturday just to throw your name in a box - and for a poll, nonetheless, not even a real election. This is where all the grassroots campaigning leading up to the event pays off. You’ve gotta have a voter base to turnout in the first place before you can start paying for tickets and bus rides and the like.
So it takes both to emerge victorious in Ames: support from people who want to go and vote for you, and the organization to get more of them there than your opponents can. And in 1999, the results did mean something - after disappointing finishes at Ames, Alexander and Quayle both dropped out of the race; after his first place showing, Bush’s frontrunner status was cemented (at least until McCain got in the race a month later).
Roughly a hundred days from now, we will watch the hoopla and extravagance with great excitement and great anticipation, because the Ames Straw Poll is the first real test of the candidates’ strength in this campaign.
Let's get organized and get a great showing for Romney!!! A first place showing is possible and would be a huge lift to his campaign and national media exposure. We can make it happen!