Iowa is a state best known for its agriculture, so it’s only fitting that at about 7 p.m. Eastern time on Aug. 13, it will apply the first winnowing fork to the Republican presidential race.
That’s approximately when the Republican Party of Iowa is scheduled to announce the final results of the upcoming Iowa Straw Poll, an event that in the past has winnowed the field from pretenders to contenders despite what its detractors claim about its irrelevance.
Just ask Lamar Alexander and Elizabeth Dole if the Iowa Straw Poll matters. Poor showings in Ames back in 1999 cost them their campaigns. Even four years ago, after front-runners Rudolph. W. Giuliani and John McCain backed out of the event, it still mattered enough to eliminate Sam Brownback following a third-place finish behind Mike Huckabee’s surprising second-place surge.
The Iowa Straw Poll matters because it’s the first real test of the two things that matter most in the first-in-the-nation caucus state: organization and star power. A candidate must have either the organization to get supporters identified and to Ames or the star power to draw them on their own. Rarely does a candidate have both, as George W. Bush did in 1999.
Minus a candidate with that lethal combination, the field this year is very fluid. I still talk to many people who are either uncommitted, willing to be persuaded away from the candidate to whom they’re currently committed, or who describe themselves as leaning toward someone more than fully committed to him or her. It means that without a bona fide front-runner, there is something at stake for each candidate:
The fiery Minnesota congresswoman never misses an opportunity to remind Iowans of her Iowa roots, and they love her vocal opposition to raising the debt ceiling. There is no question she’s the biggest star in the race right now, but she didn’t formally enter the fray until June, so it remains to be seen whether her organization has enough firepower to capitalize on her star power. If she doesn’t win the straw poll, it will be perceived as a sign of weakness on her part. It may not be a mortal wound, but it won’t be a superficial one, either. Straw poll odds: 3-1.
Regardless of his campaign’s attempts to manage expectations, the reality is that Mr. Pawlenty has to win the straw poll or there is no justification for him being in the race the next day - especially with Rick Perry definitely on the way, and perhaps Sarah Palin as well. No one has invested more time, talent and treasure in Iowa than Mr. Pawlenty, but his campaign has been struggling to change the wimpy narrative since his failure to confront Mitt Romney over Romneycare at the last New Hampshire debate. Straw poll odds: 5-1.
A few weeks ago, there was a fear among some social conservatives I know that the libertarian-leaning Mr. Paul was going to win the straw poll, but his campaign seems to have plateaued since then. For various reasons, Mr. Paul struggles to expand his base coalition of Calvinists and anarchists despite being on the right side of several issues on the minds of voters. Still, severely hot weather that dampens turnout could lead to anupset because he still has the most devoted following. His supporters will show up no matter what. Straw poll odds: 10-1.
Here is the best chance for a straw-poll surprise. He won’t win it, but Mr. Santorum could very well outperform his polling enough to justify sticking around. He has the resources and connections of Nick Ryan, one of Iowa’s most respected and reviled politicos, at his disposal. In the past few days, I have talked to several uncommitted former Huckabee supporters who are starting to see Mr. Santorum as the most similar to the man they supported four years ago. Straw poll odds: 250-1.
He’s on the ballot despite not doing the straw poll. Mr. Romney easily has the highest negatives of any candidate in Iowa. However, next to Mr. Paul, he might have the most loyal following. A staffer for a rival candidate told me he thought Mr. Romney could have won the straw poll again if he tried. Straw poll odds: 500-1.