The Ames straw poll will be the first big event of the 2012 presidential election cycle, even with Mitt Romney sitting it out and Rick Perry just declaring his candidacy. It is the single best opportunity for candidates not named Romney or Perry to break out. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts.
1. Tim Pawlenty — I don’t like his chances tomorrow, but he does have two things going for him. One is that he arguably has the best campaign operation in Iowa. Organization counts for a lot in straw polls. The second is that expectations for him are now so low that a narrow victory, and maybe even a strong second place showing, will be seen as a major coup. Even three months ago, anything less than a Pawlenty landslide would have been considered a failure.
2. Michele Bachmann — Bachmann is well positioned to win the straw poll, since scientific polls show her to be the most popular candidate among the Iowa Republicans who will turn out for the caucuses and Romney is skipping the event. But we don’t know how good her organization is, and Ames is first and foremost a test of organizational strength. Could Pawlenty — or someone else — out-hustle her ground troops?
3. Ron Paul — That “someone else” would most likely be Paul. He has devoted a lot of resources to the straw poll this year and he and his son, Sen. Rand Paul, have been a near-constant presence in Iowa this week. His Iowa operation is being run by Drew Ivers, who superintended second-place showings in the caucuses by Pat Robertson in 1988 and Pat Buchanan in 1996. But Paul is to some extent damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Even if he finishes first, pundits will write it off by saying he always wins straw polls. If he finishes outside the top three, it will be a disappointment considering the investment he’s made there. A strong showing would represent progress for Paul, however: it would show that he can build an organization within a single state and use it to turn out voters. Despite his strong national following, he failed to demonstrate that in 2008.
4. Herman Cain — Just a few months ago, it looked like Herman Cain could win it. He still may well be a factor. But he’s been upstaged by Michele Bachmann, his Iowa organization has been in a state of flux, and he’s not getting as much organizational support from the Fair Tax crowd as Mike Huckabee did. All that being said, Cain is a candidate worth watching.
5. Newt Gingrich — What about the other Georgian in the race? The former House speaker’s presidential campaign has so far been a disaster, despite solid debate performances. He’ll need a strong showing to keep afloat. Let’s see if he can surprise.
6. Rick Santorum — Social conservatives do well in Iowa. Robertson and Buchanan came in second in the caucuses, Alan Keyes came in third, and Huckabee won outright. While he’ll be splitting the social conservative vote with Bachmann, this is an opportunity for Santorum.
7. Thaddeus McCotter — McCotter’s quixotic campaign has taken a bit of a hit since he hasn’t been allowed to showcase his dry wit in the debates. But he did buy the second-best plot at Ames (Paul was the top bidder). Let’s see if that pays off for him.