Only once since the Iowa straw poll started in 1979 has the winner become the Republican nominee for president. As I explained earlier this week, the straw poll's main function is weeding out second-tier candidates. By that standard, no one had a worse day than former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who ended his campaign this morning after coming in third.
Pawlenty invested heavily in the straw poll: He ran ads, purchased www.iowastrawpoll2011.com, offered the best food of the day with barbecue catered by Midwestern chain Famous Dave's, and bused people in from far across the state. But Pawlenty struggled with fundraising, and Rick Perry's presidential announcement yesterday left even less room for him on the crowded field.
He positioned himself as an alternative -- albeit not a radical one -- for Republicans dissatisfied with Mitt Romney. As the Tea Party gained in strength, though, Pawlenty moved further and further to the right. He wound up competing in the same territory as Michele Bachmann -- a battle he could never win. He gave up on the Sam's Club conservatism that defined his early image and became the standard uncompromising Republican. He disavowed raising taxes (revenue from cigarettes were not taxes but instead an Orwellian-termed "health impact fee"); he reread the science on climate change; and turned against gay rights. While it's easy to say good riddance to this new version of Pawlenty, it's a sad comment on the GOP that his old brand of Republicanism -- still pretty conservative but willing to reach out to the working class and stay away from fringe theories -- has no place in the extremist party of today.
Bachmann's Saturday victory in that early test proved the Minnesota congresswoman has an organized campaign that can draw a crowd. Bachmann won the poll -- an early vote dominated by Republican activists before next year's Iowa Caucus -- with 4,823 votes, or 28.55 percent of the total. That was just 152 votes more than Texas Representative Ron Paul. The results aren't surprising given how their well-funded campaigns dominated the weekend's events. Their volunteers swarmed the parking lots outside Hilton Coliseum where the voting took place. Every candidate set up tents offering live music and free food, but Paul's and Bachmann's dwarfed the competition. Paul placed the highest bid on a lot outside the Hilton -- 31 grand -- and put that money to good use, building a verifiable carnival that included an inflatable "Sliding Dollar" slide.
But while Paul has been able to draw out the groundswell of libertarians in the GOP, his broader reach is limited. He's got his true believers, but there is little chance for a candidate who accuses the government of being a "counterfeiter" for minting money, is anti-war, and is less shrill on social issues than evangelical voters like. It is Bachmann who has, at least for the time being, captured the imagination of Iowans. She drew the largest crowd wherever she spoke.
Her campaign is still young -- she only officially entered the race two months ago -- but she's already made strides toward building an effective ground-level organization. In addition to the presence of someone in an orange Bachmann volunteer shirt at every turn, she dominated the competition for offering the most golf carts to carry voters to the distant parking lots -- a group of liberal activists even registered with Bachmann just to get a ride back to their cars. That's paired with the funding prowess any front-runner would be jealous of; there were reports from her campaign last night that it had handed out 6,000 free tickets to the voting booths, which would have cost at least $180,000.
However, twice Bachmann failed to take advantage of prime speaking engagements. When Bachmann's time slot at the Iowa State Fair came on Friday, she had amassed the largest crowd of the day. But she left the crowd waiting in the heat and scorching sun for around half an hour. It had begun to disperse by the time she appeared and spoke for less than three minutes before bolting from the scene. A similar scenario played out after the straw-poll victory yesterday. As television camera crews clamored to film shots to send back to their live cable-news feeds, Bachmann made a nondescript, two-minute statement. While fleeing coverage yesterday after giving the media the sound bite she wanted could be interpreted as media-savvy, it's difficult to understand why she wouldn't take advantage of the chance to speak with a large crowd of hundreds of voters at the state fair the day before the straw poll that could make or break her campaign.
Rick Santorum and Herman Cain, the fourth- and fifth-place finishers weren't hurt by Saturday's results, but that's just another way of saying they will remain underdogs. Both are running behind the pack, and neither got the boost they needed to move to first class.
Romney placed seventh with only 567 votes. The former Massachusetts governor didn't have to finish at the top yesterday, but he lost pitifully; he did, after all, win the event in 2007 and later went on to finish second in the actual caucuses. And he can't just claim that he finished so low since he wasn't on the ground in Ames: Rick Perry placed right above Romney, with 718 votes despite the fact that Perry's name didn't appear on the ballot and had to be written in. Sure, an independent 527 called Americans for Rick Perry was working the parking lots for the Texas governor, but that can't account for the full turnout that put Perry among the top performers in the poll. He only officially entered the race yesterday -- right in the middle of straw-poll voting. But he is already headed to Waterloo tonight to speak at a county Republican fundraising dinner. Bachmann is scheduled to close off the same dinner right after Perry speaks. Based on yesterday's straw poll, that pairing is one people may see often during next year's primaries.