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Posted at 12:53 PM ET, 12/17/2010

The Ames Straw Poll: To compete or not to compete

By Chris Cillizza

This week the long-dormant 2012 presidential race began to stir.

The big news came out of Iowa -- natch -- with the announcement that the Ames Straw Poll, the first big organizational test of any Republican presidential race, will be held on Aug. 13, 2011.

There were also a series of debates announced this week, bringing the total already scheduled for 2011/2012 to six.

Friday Line

As the nominating calendar fills up, each of the would-be GOP nominees has a choice to make: how much do they participate in -- and what?

The biggest decision facing the would-be nominees is whether to make an all-out effort in the Straw Poll next summer.

In 2007, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain -- the two GOP frontrunners at the time -- skipped Ames. Giuliani said, essentially, it was a waste of money while McCain said it wasn't a true test because the full field wouldn't be there.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won the Straw Poll that year and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, then a virtual unknown, finished second; the two men flip-flopped those positions in the actual caucuses with Huckabee scoring the win.

There's little question that the Straw Poll can be a money pit unless you either win or finish surprisingly strongly. Despite that, it's hard to see the likes of Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, South Dakota Sen. John Thune or Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels skipping the event since they are unknowns (or close to it) on the Iowa and national stage and need to use the event as a springboard for the caucuses.

The decision is less clear for Romney, Huckabee and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Romney spent oodles of money in Iowa last time around only to watch Huckabee -- with only the barest of bones political organizations and far less money -- catapult past him for the win on caucus day.

So far this cycle, Romney and his political team seem to be adopting a "been there, done that" approach to the early skirmishes of a presidential fight -- avoiding the fray more often than not. Given how Romney could struggle to win over social conservatives in Iowa -- a critical voting constituency -- he may well stay away from the Straw Poll.

For Huckabee, the 2007 Straw Poll was the first indication that he was a stronger candidate than many people originally thought. He won't be an underdog anymore -- in Iowa or anywhere else -- and so playing in the Straw Poll is a risk. But, Huckabee does have a track record of success in the Hawkeye State and might want to reassert himself at the top of the field. Ames is a good way to do that.

Palin's calculation is the most fascinating of all. On one hand, she would be the stand-out rock star candidate of Ames and likely make a decent showing based on her celebrity alone. On the other, the Straw Poll would require a concerted organizing effort on her behalf and it's not clear she is interested in doing that. Palin, too, has the luxury of waiting to get into the race and may not even be an announced candidate by next summer, which would make this discussion moot.

In the presidential nominating race, choosing where to fight is of critical importance. How each of the candidates approaches Ames will give us an indication of where they see themselves in the field and how they think they can win the whole shebang.

Below are our most recent rankings of the 10 candidates we consider most likely to win the nomination today. The number one-ranked candidate has the best chance. Kudos? Critiques? The comments section awaits.

To the Line!

10. Jim DeMint: The South Carolina Senator hasn't said much about 2012 and, when he does, he insists he's not interested in running. But, his actions during the lame-duck sessions -- most notably the threat to have the entire START treaty read aloud to slow down the proceedings -- are the sorts of moves you would make it you were plotting a run for president. DeMint's strong following among tea party types and his base in the early primary state of South Carolina could make him formidable if he decides to run. (Previous ranking: N/A)

9. Mike Pence: In case there was any doubt that the Indiana House Republican was thinking about any other race than president in 2012, his vote against the tax cut compromise last night should clear things up. Pence is positioning himself as a down-the-line fiscal and social conservative and, we think, could surprise some people if he decides to run. Money might be a problem but he did make the Fix's 2012 darkhorse list recently. (Previous ranking: 9)

8. Mitch Daniels: Daniels has set a late April deadline for a decision on the presidential contest. If he does run, he is, on paper, in the top tier thanks to a strong story about his tenure as governor -- although his opponents believe that record can be mined for attacks particularly on tax issues. The lingering question for Daniels, who clearly prefers governing to campaigning, is whether he is up to the grind of a presidential nomination fight. (Previous ranking: 7)

7. John Thune: Thune is the buzziest candidate in Washington these days thanks to his $7 million campaign bank account, good looks and solid conservative credentials. And, the shot -- albeit veiled -- that he took at Romney over the tax compromise earlier in the week shows that he is looking to elevate his profile. (In politics, it's always smart to punch up rather than down.) Heart questions still surround Thune as even those close to him wonder how badly he wants it -- a critical element of a successful campaign. The other problem for Thune? His vote for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) in 2008. (Previous ranking: 5)

6. Haley Barbour: Barbour, like Daniels, isn't expected to make an official decision until late spring. (We've argued that staying out until then is a missed opportunity for all of the lesser known candidates but oh well.) Barbour, unlike Daniels, relishes campaigning and would likely benefit from the hand-to-hand nature of early caucus and primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire. Barbour's struggle would be to either win or finish surprisingly strongly in either of those first two states -- neither of which are a natural fit for the southern governor. Without a win, place or show in Iowa or New Hampshire, it's hard to imagine Barbour staying relevant through South Carolina where he would, presumably, have a much obvious foothold. (Previous ranking: 4)

5. Mike Huckabee: Huckabee is the Rodney Dangerfield of the 2012 presidential race. Despite being at or near the top of every national poll conducted among the GOP field and with a 2008 Iowa caucus win in his hip pocket, there's few people among the Republican chattering class who take him all that seriously. (Politico's Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith had a great story about the lack of respect for Huckabee.) Huckabee hasn't used the two years since his last race to build the sort of political operation that a Romney has, for example, but he may not need it given the loyalty he engenders among social conservatives. (Previous ranking: 8)

4. Tim Pawlenty: Pawlenty has been -- and will continue to be -- the rabbit of the presidential race. He will almost certainly be the first major candidate into the contest sometime early next year and will set the pace in terms of visits to Iowa and New Hampshire. The question is whether all of that activity will add up to support or not. Pawlenty is an able campaigner but hasn't had a breakthrough moment just yet. With the national spotlight now turning to the presidential race, he'll need to start showing some traction over the next six months or so to hold this lofty spot on the Line. (Previous ranking: 3)

3. Newt Gingrich: One well-connected Iowa operative was recently detailing the massive amounts of time -- and money -- that the former House Speaker had spent in the Hawkeye State over the last two years. That got us to thinking about the possibility that we have been underestimating Gingrich in our 2012 calculations. What he has: name identification, the ability to raise money and more policy proposals than Antoine Dodson has You Tube hits. (And you said we couldn't get an Antoine Dodson reference into the Fix!) What he doesn't: a demonstrated ability to stay on message day after day in the cauldron of a presidential race. Still, if Gingrich runs, and he sounds like he is going to, he is a major force. (Previous ranking: 6)

2. Sarah Palin: Palin has begun to break out of her Twitter/Facebook cocoon to interact with the mainstream media of late. Basic political analysis would suggest that Palin's newfound love -- ok, that may be too strong a word -- for the press means that she is trying to re-shape her public image in advance of a run for president. But, as we have written many times, basic political analysis doesn't often apply to Palin. it's just as likely that this media tour is the result of a snap decision made by Palin and her top/only political adviser (aka First Dude Todd Palin). Who knows? What we do know is that Palin is the only person on the Line who could get 10,000 people to show up and see her next weekend in Iowa. And that's worth something. (Previous ranking: 2)

1. Mitt Romney: Romney's op-ed in opposition to the tax compromise proved that the former Massachusetts governor is deserving of our top spot. He effectively positioned himself in opposition to not just Obama but also congressional Republicans -- a very good place to be given the anti-establishment sentiment among the GOP electorate these days. Romney has, by far, the most advanced political organization of anyone in the field and his ability to self-fund gives him a leg up financially over his potential competitors. Romney's weaknesses -- his difficulty in connecting on the stump, his Mormonism, his flip-flops on social issues -- are well known and real. But, Romney seems a more measured and mature candidate than he was in 2008. Whether that resonates with primary and caucus voters remains to be seen. (Previous ranking: 1)

By Chris Cillizza  | December 17, 2010; 12:53 PM ET
Categories:  The Line  
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