Iowa Straw Poll: Over Long Before It Really Began

by Stuart Rothenberg June 14, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

Less than a month ago in this space, I observed that the fast-approaching Iowa straw poll in Ames on Aug. 11 could offer some interesting insights into the Republican race for president. To quote Emily Litela (Gilda Radner) of “Saturday Night Live” fame, “Never mind.”

The recent announcement by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani that he would skip the straw poll, followed by the surprising announcement by Arizona Sen. John McCain that he, too, would not actively participate in the straw poll, all but destroys the significance of the event.

Television network executives who were preparing for a political event of significance — a visual event with real people “voting” — will now give only passing mention to the straw poll.

An NBC source told me the network is “completely reassessing” its coverage of the Iowa straw poll, while a source at CBS familiar with that network’s political coverage was more blunt: “Giuliani’s and McCain’s absence from the Iowa straw poll makes it very much less likely that we’ll cover it with the intensity that we would have had they been involved. It’s hard to justify giving significant time to a no-contest event.”

Given those reactions, it’s a safe bet that the television and print coverage of the event will be one-tenth of what it would have been if all the major GOP candidates had competed.

With two of the Big Three Republican contenders (McCain, Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney) already announcing that they will not compete, there is little reason for political reporters to dwell on whether Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.) or former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee can get more supporters out to Ames in the middle of August.

The straw poll was never going to be as important as the January caucuses, of course, but it was likely to be some sort of early test of campaign organization in a state where organization in January (or whenever the Iowa caucuses actually take place) matters.

Thompson, who is expected to enter the GOP race soon, can now move up his announcement date if he chooses without fear of being asked whether he will participate in the straw poll. His late entry would have given him an out anyway, and some insiders have been speculating that he was delaying his announcement to make it impossible for him to participate in the Ames event.

Giuliani’s decision also isn’t surprising, since Romney and McCain have the two best organizations in the state and a disappointing finish by the New Yorker could have done nothing but add to the impression that he is weak with the GOP base and his appeal has been exaggerated by national poll numbers.

One month ago, one Republican insider who is supporting Romney’s presidential bid told me privately that Giuliani might skip Ames. “Rudy has no organization on the ground in the state,” the observer commented.

McCain’s decision, however, is more of a surprise, and it can’t be comforting to supporters of the Arizona Republican that he has chosen to bail from the straw poll.

McCain has put together an excellent Iowa operation, and his team includes campaign manger Terry Nelson, a very talented Iowan who knows the state’s politics and political mechanics as well as anyone.

Just a month ago, an ally of McCain told me, “We are obviously participating” in the straw poll.

The Republican insider went on to compare 2008 with 2000 by noting that when McCain “didn’t participate in the 1999 straw poll, he was in the single digits nationally,” compared to now, when he has been a top-tier candidate for many months. The implication: This is a very different race; McCain is one of the frontrunners; McCain must participate in Ames.

The decision by the McCain camp, then, constitutes a reversal, an important change in plans that certainly suggests his advisers feared he would underperform in Ames or doesn’t have the financial resources to enable him to compete there without hurting himself elsewhere.

Obviously, it’s better for McCain to duck a fight with Romney than to have one that would have embarrassed the Senator. But either way, McCain looks weaker, raising more questions (questions he doesn’t need) about his long-term prospects.

One thing that the now-catatonic straw poll doesn’t do is undermine the importance of the Iowa caucuses. They remain, along with New Hampshire’s primary, the two biggest tests of the presidential cycle.

Will Republican activists in Iowa punish McCain and Giuliani for not participating in the straw poll? It seems unlikely, as long as the two of them, and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, make it clear that the caucuses remain a high priority for them.

For Romney, the Giuliani and McCain decisions about August constitute a quick victory and serve to confirm the former governor’s organizational strength, and momentum, in the state. Of course, the bar for him is now set high in the Hawkeye State, and the presidential contest is a long war, not a single battle. Two months before the big event, the straw vote is now ancient history.