Iowa's Republican Party Straw Poll took place on Saturday in Ames, Iowa. Several surprises shook up the race, and at the proverbial end of the day, two candidates wound up as big winners and two became big losers.
First, the winners. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee finished second and boosted his surging popularity. He garnered 33% more votes than tickets he paid for, outperforming all the other candidates. The big question for the former governor of Arkansas will be whether the fundraising can follow. His campaign has struggled to raise money, and the Straw Poll has taxed his limited funds even more. He has six weeks to the end of the third-quarter fundraising deadline. We will know soon if he's for real.
Rep. Ron Paul also shocked people in Iowa. He finished in fifth place and garnered more than 9% of vote in spite of only three trips to Iowa. His advertising was minimal, releasing just a few ads that came out last week. A supporter of Paul's emailed me on Friday saying he would be happy to see Paul get 3% of the vote. They blew away those numbers.
On the other end of the action, Tommy Thompson had announced prior to the Straw Poll that he would pull out of the race if he finished worse than second. His visits to all 99 counties in Iowa failed to succor more support than a sixth-place finish. He's done for 2008.
Senator Sam Brownback had high hopes of second-place finish also. He had campaigned religiously in Iowa leading up to the Straw Poll and spent $325,000. For that trouble, he came in third with 15% of the vote. It appears that his campaign has significant challenges ahead. The Brownback team has ostensibly blown out its campaign funds in Iowa. The campaign will be hard pressed to recover from this gamble on Iowa and can only watch helplessly as a more charismatic Mike Huckabee has been hailed the winner of the evangelical vote. If the fundraising dries up, look for Brownback to call it quits.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney nominally won the contest with 31.5% of the votes. His win follows a significant amount of resources spent in both time and money to ensure victory: 17 trips, 43 days in Iowa and $817 per vote. Romney's campaign has tried to suggest the win was not "hollow."
I think the win was hollow.
The Iowa GOP followed the lead of the top three national candidates -- Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Fred Thompson -- and skipped the event. Turnout tumbled from the 1999 Straw Poll's 23,685 votes cast when George W. Bush beat Steve Forbes -- only 14,302 Iowans participated.
What does the low turnout suggest?
I see the Iowa Straw Poll as a microcosm for the entire primary, and the conclusion is clear: The present field of candidates fails to excite the GOP.
What can the GOP do? It has to find a better candidate or find a better strategy that appeals to more than its base.
The GOP had better act fast, because the Iowa Caucus comes in less than five months. The party desperately needs to overcome voter malaise after eight years of George W. Bush's GOP.