Rep. Michelle Bachmann won the Ames straw poll (aka, Iowa straw poll), a presidential mock election open to residents of Iowa. The poll is held in a county-fair-like atmosphere at Ames, Iowa in August prior to presidential election years when there isn’t an incumbent Republican President running for re-election. There have been six polls, including last Saturday’s.
But does this non-binding poll of Republican voter-preference, held in a Midwestern state with an overwhelmingly white population of about 3-million, have any real significance? I believe it does.
It certainly has not done well predicting the winner of the Republican primaries, though it’s done better as a predictor of success in the Iowa caucuses. In fact, Iowa voters have been completely right just once since the first poll in 1979, when George W. Bush took the 1999 straw vote, the caucuses, the nomination and the presidency.
Furthermore, not all declared candidates choose to participate, though their names may be on the ballot. This year, the national front-runner Mitt Romney chose to sit out the poll—as did John McCain in 2007. Gov. Rick Perry didn’t even declare himself a candidate until the event was fully underway and much too late to even get his name on the ballot.
But the event does have significance. There is, of course, the obvious: it gives a major boost to the local economy as thousands of journalists, campaign staffers and voters descend on the town, and it is one of the Iowa Republican Party’s most lucrative fundraisers.
Ames, however, also acts as a showcase for declared candidates and their campaign teams. Candidates debate each other on national television and demonstrate their organizational and fundraising skills, all with the benefit of rapt attention from the national media, and millions of voters. Ames was the political news story of this past weekend—though Gov. Perry did spoil the party somewhat. That must be worth millions of dollars in national advertising to the Republican candidates.
Moreover, Ames is an important hurdle, thinning out the weakest candidates at an early stage, and giving the stronger ones more “elbow room” as they move on to the caucuses and primaries. Ames also seems to act as sort of an acid test of each candidates degree of conservatism. Only those who appeal to the right of the Republican Party seem to do well there. Clear distinctions can be seem between the candidates and their rivals in the Democratic Party. This is useful, because later, when the candidates have to campaign much closer to the political center in the presidential election, conservative voters will already know just how valid each candidate’s conservative bona fides are.
Rep. Michelle Bachmann has used Ames to demonstrate how effectively she has tapped into the anti-government, anti-tax, more jobs sentiment across middle America. She adroitly spreads the core messages of 2012: smaller government, balanced budgets and jobs, jobs, jobs—she virtually owns the ground on the hard-right, though not so securely now that Gov. Perry has entered the race.
And Ames helped get her there.