DES MOINES – The winner of Saturday’s Iowa GOP straw poll won’t be known until sometime after 6 p.m. But you’ll be able to hazard a good guess hours earlier simply by eye-balling the crowd gathered in and around the Hilton Coliseum at Iowa State University.
The reason is simple: In a contest traditionally shaped by candidates who pay for tickets and bus in supporters, the outcome is usually telegraphed by the size and make-up of the crowd that shows up.
According to both the campaigns and straw poll veterans, a large gathering would be indicative that more attendees showed up than just those delivered by the campaigns – an organic turnout of true believers which would favor Michele Bachmann.
At the top of polls here, Bachmann would benefit from a broader crowd where the composition of voters is more reflective of the actual caucus-going electorate.
The Minnesota congresswoman would also likely fare better in an expanded universe because her organization is not as sophisticated as that of her top rival here, Tim Pawlenty.
With cars dedicated to ferrying voters back and forth from suburban Des Moines to Ames, a hard count of over 2,000 dedicated supporters and a phalanx of over a dozen longtime operatives whipping votes, Pawlenty has an operation that could succeed if turnout is limited to Republicans who came on the dime of the various campaigns. But the former Minnesota governor, who has been on TV for much of the last month but still lags in polls, also has a ceiling.
Similarly, the fewer the GOP activists, the more Ron Paul stands to benefit. With a loyal but narrow following among libertarian-leaning Republicans, Paul could pull off an upset if attendance is down. While some attendees might, as they have in the past, ride one candidate’s bus only to arrive and support a rival, the Texas congressman’s backers are unwavering.
Paul campaign manager Jesse Benton said they bought 2,750 tickets from the state party, but Paul rivals contend the number is higher than that.
“If it’s a low turnout, Ron Paul has got the organization – he’s spent five years working on it,” said Iowa GOP Congressman Steve King. “He should not be underestimated.”
A broad rule of thumb: The closer turnout is to 20,000, the better it looks for Bachmann. The closer to 10,000, the more likely it is Pawlenty or Paul could knock off the Iowa frontrunner.
The enthusiasm in the revived Republican Party here—and the zeal for defeating President Obama—could prompt something toward the higher number.
“What’s different this time is that there are going to be people who turn themselves out,” said Brian Kennedy, a former state GOP chair and Mitt Romney backer. “It’s not like in the past where you had to be on the bus.”
Kennedy said a fellow Bettendorf Rotarian who had not previously been a super-engaged political activist approached him this week and asked about getting a ticket to Ames.
“My premise is we’re going to have people who just show up,” said Kennedy.
Other Iowa Republicans, however, are more skeptical about attendance.
John Stineman, who ran Steve Forbes’s 2000 Iowa campaign, noted Ames turnout has traditionally been manufactured entirely by campaigns.
“And only two candidates are really driving it and neither are doing so at the level of a Mitt Romney in 2007 or George W. Bush and Steve Forbes in 1999,” Stineman said.
Grant Young, who worked for Bush’s 2000 bid, recalled that both his candidate and Forbes had all of Iowa’s 99 counties organized heading into Ames and even had put together coalition groups.
“There was an arms race between Bush and Forbes,” Young recalled.
Stineman, who is unaligned this year, studied past straw poll results and predicted that total turnout this year would be less than the combined 11,339 votes Bush and Forbes received 12 years ago—making this year’s straw poll more similar to 1995 when 10,598 Iowa Republicans came to Ames than in 2007, when 14,302 of them made the trip.
Of the three candidates expected to win, place and show, it’s Pawlenty who has the most riding on the results. Bachmann’s caucus prospects would be diminished if she was unable to translate a poll lead into a straw poll win and the quixotic nature of Paul’s bid would be reinforced if he slipped back into the pack. But both of them are almost sure to go on regardless of Saturday’s results. The same can’t be said for Pawlenty.
For mainstream candidates who make a major Iowa push, Ames has long played a winnowing role. Just as with Lamar Alexander and Elizabeth Dole in 1999 and Sam Brownback and Tommy Thompson four years ago, Pawlenty may be forced to drop out if he doesn’t have a strong showing. The reason is very practical: he’s already spent much of the $1.4 million he had in the bank as of the end of July and it would be difficult to continue raising the cash needed to finance his campaign if he’s thumped at the straw poll.
“My sense is that if Pawlenty comes in third it gets awful hard for him to raise money,” said Bachmann campaign manager Ed Rollins.
Pawlenty and his top aides, however, are more inclined to slim down their organization, cut overhead and gut it out if he can come close to victory Saturday. They think, plausibly enough, that it’s a matter of when, not if, Bachmann fades. And they believe, more hopefully, that Republicans will ultimately rethink the notion of nominating another swaggering Texas governor. So the idea would be that Pawlenty would run something that looks more like an Iowa gubernatorial campaign, focusing entirely on one state, in the hopes of still being around when the race settles.
Appearing at a POLITICO forum Friday morning in Des Moines, the former Minnesota governor indicated in a candid moment that he was prepared to run a leaner campaign if necessary.
“Would we have to retrench in some fashion? Probably, but I don’t think that’s gonna happen,” Pawlenty said. “I think we’re gonna do very well.”
In a brief interview following his appearance, Pawlenty had an air of resignation about Saturday.
“Look, you get to a point where you’ve done everything you can and it is that whatever will be, will be,” he said.
For her part, Bachmann spent Friday racing around to retail stops in central Iowa and urging Republicans to support her at Ames.
“We’re trying to be all across Iowa; we’ll be working until late this evening,” she said in Indianola. “We’re trying to get to as many Iowans as we can.”
Taking in his candidate’s speech there, Rollins wouldn’t predict victory but said the more voters that show up the better for their prospects.
“We’ve guesstimated….somewhere around 15,000,” he said of total turnout. “Our goal would be to have 5,000 or 6,000 votes – then we’ve had a good day.”
But Rollins touched on what is, short of overall turnout, perhaps the most important unknown hanging over Saturday: “I don’t know how many people Paul is bringing or where he’s bringing them from.”
Benton, Paul’s manager, set a modest goal: “The other guys will be tough, but we are confident we can finish in the top four.”
Alexander Burns contributed to this report.