Clearly the most important day of the 2012 Republican presidential nomination campaign occurred Saturday. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-MN-6) victory at the Iowa Straw Poll sent former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty packing, while 1,200 miles away at the Red State Gathering event in Charleston, SC, Texas Gov. Rick Perry formally joined the race.
Rep. Bachmann’s preliminary Hawkeye State victory was no surprise. It had been clear for weeks that she and Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX-14) had the strongest vote-gathering potential within the regular universe of Straw Poll attendees. Ironically, it was Pawlenty who had the best campaign organization and spent more than any other candidate – far above $1 million. The fact that he finished a distant third (2,293 votes to Bachmann’s 4,823 and Paul’s 4,671) caused him to officially end his campaign on Sunday.
The high Straw Poll turnout proved to be the event’s biggest revelation. Many political pundits and outside observers were predicting a lower than average rate of participation in the days approaching the carnival-style political affair held at Iowa State University in Ames, saying that none of the candidates were exciting the rank and file GOP voters.
In 2008, when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won the Straw Poll, more than 14,000 people voted, with as many as 20,000 on the grounds. At its historical high point in 1996, more than 30,000 individuals cast ballots but that was when candidates were allowed to bus and fly people in from all over the country. Beginning in 2000, participation was limited to Iowa registered voters. Some predicted that overall turnout for the current event could be as low as 10,000. But on Saturday, 16,829 people cast ballots.
Aside from Pawlenty, the event’s biggest loser could well be Mr. Romney. Making the decision to bypass the Straw Poll and participate only in the pre-event debate held last Thursday evening, Romney scored just 567 votes. Though he and two other candidates, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and ex-Gov. Jon Huntsman, refused to participate in the Straw Poll, the Iowa Republican Party officials still added their names to the official ballot. Gov. Perry and former V-P nominee Sarah Palin, neither of whom were candidates at the time of the state party ballot deadline vote, were not placed on the ballot.
Though Perry’s name was not on the Straw Poll ballot, an independent expenditure group supporting his running for President, called Americans for Rick Perry (AFRP), did organize for purposes of convincing Perry supporters to attend the event and write-in the governor’s name. Because AFRP is not officially tied to the candidate, obtaining tent space on the event grounds was not allowed. With no ability to work inside the gates and not even having a candidate, AFRP still was able to deliver 718 write-in votes. This total was better than what was recorded by three campaigns whose candidate actually participated in the Thursday debate and were on the official ballot: Romney, Gingrich (385 votes), and Huntsman (69).
Certainly Saturday’s biggest winner was Michele Bachmann. The biggest loser was Tim Pawlenty. But the underlying story is Perry and Romney. Gov. Perry, via a write-in campaign organized solely from the outside by an unconnected group in just three weeks, scored a respectable number of votes by all accounts. Romney, by finishing under Perry, creates a greater image of vulnerability and poses questions about his strategic decision to skip the Iowa Straw Poll. He has made past comments that he would also bypass the significant straw poll events in Florida and Michigan. It will be interesting to see if the Iowa results prompt a change of plans from the Romney camp.
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