What the Heck is the Iowa Straw Poll?

The 2012 Presidential election is still fifteen months away, but the campaigns are already well under way! There was a lot of news over the last few days about the Republicans running for their party’s nomination, so let’s break down what happened.

The big stories out of the weekend are as follows:

  • Michele Bachmann won the Ames, IA straw poll
  • Rick Perry announced his campaign
  • Perry did well in the poll as a write-in candidate

In order to really get into this, it’s important to understand just what Iowa’s big GOP event is all about. In every presidential cycle where there isn’t a Republican incumbent running for re-election, Ames, Iowa holds a big event for the state’s conservative voters to attend speeches, and really come to know the field of candidates better. What typically happens is that Ames becomes a real proving ground for a campaign’s organizational skills in the field. Campaigns often bring in supporters from all over the state, cover the $30.00 entrance fee for their supporters, and then ply them with food and drink and entertainment for the weekend. While the majority of the attention is paid to the “who won, who lost” questions, the big news to come out of the event is what happens with each campaign’s supporters. For instance, Slate Magazine’s David Weigel sums it up like so:

What else do the numbers say? Bachmann’s camp distributed more than 6000 tickets, ending the day in a frenzy of giving and buying. [Texas Congressman Ron] Paul’s camp distributed less than that, more than 5000. So for every six people who took a ticket from Bachmann’s camp, one voted for someone else. For every 25 people who took a ticket from Paul, only one voted for someone else.

So while Bachmann became the big headline by coming out a winner, the internal workings of the weekend are really more interesting, showing a number of problems with the Bachmann campaign, their ability to organize supporters, interact with the press, and campaign the way Iowans (influential in the primary process) are comfortable with.

One last thing to keep in mind about the Ames Straw Poll is that in the poll’s history (dating back all the way to 1979) it has predicted the party’s eventual nominee once out of five times, not including 1995’s Bob Dole/Phil Gramm tie vote.

As the Bachmann campaign was working on a victory in Iowa, Texas Governor Rick Perry was in South Carolina to announce his bid for the Republican nomination. Perry’s announcement came at such a time that his name was not on the ballot in Iowa, but with televisions showing his announcement speech on repeat, and supporters crawling throughout Ames, the governor received a healthy 718 votes. Perry bested front-runner Mitt Romney by about 150 votes, although the Romney campaign chose not to campaign in Iowa and focus elsewhere instead.

It remains to be seen what Perry’s decision to enter the race will do to the field, but with the Texan’s arrival coinciding with former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty’s decision to drop out of the race, things in the Republican field are certain to be changing dramatically over the next few weeks.

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