Opinion: Why Ames was a Win for Ron Paul (Not Bachmann) and Where the GOP Race Goes Now

First – Does the Ames Straw Poll matter? One of my most trusted sources (Nate Silver of the New York Times Five Thirty Eight blog) says YES

Ames has a pretty good predictive track record. Since the event began in 1979, the candidate winning the Iowa caucus has placed first or second in the straw poll every time. Two successes in particular stand out. In 1979, George H.W. Bush won Ames despite polling at just 1 percent in a Des Moines Register survey — he went on to win the Iowa caucus. And in 2007 Mike Huckabee, in the low single digits in both state and national polls, finished second in the straw poll, the first tangible indicator of his upside in Iowa. 


So now you know. The straw poll is more accurate in predicting the caucus outcome than “scientific” polls!Now here are the results and my assessment of the 2011 Poll.

This year 16,892 Iowans participated down from the 23,685 people who voted in 1999, propelling George W. Bush’s candidacy.

Technically Michelle Bachmann won the Ames straw poll with 29 percent of the vote. No surprise. She worked hard for it and invested major resources to get her supporters out! She was even born in Iowa - a huge asset. 

But, Ron Paul was so close (with 28 percent) that it makes her “victory” pretty weak! No one expects Paul to get the nomination, so it’s an embarrassment for Michelle finish within 200 votes of Dr. Paul. The headlines are popping up as I write this –‘Bachmann Narrowly Beats Ron Paul,” - hardly what she wants to see in the blogs, tweets and on Fox! 

But this is the world of BS, so the media is saying; “The win is likely to provide the Minnesota Republican considerable momentum as the 2012 race ramps up.” I agree that it will keep her fundraising up, she has bragging rights, and it keeps her flame very bright and hot. But all she did was she hold on to a tenuous first place in a rapidly changing and dangerous environment. 

By the way, her big rival, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty placed third with 2,293 with 14 percent of the vote (a poor showing that led him to announce he'll leave the race). This was followed by Rick Santorum (10 percent) and then Herman Cain.

Ron Paul may have actually “won” the straw poll because it’s an expectations game. Paul has a passionate following and is a great problem for other GOP candidates because he is so organized, can raise a ton of money, and is likable like Ronald Reagan.  But, the media has dismissed him as a fluke and don’t think he has a chance past Iowa. 

Rick Perry got 718 write-in votes without showing up at all, so for all practical purposes he came in second in my book. If he’d been contesting my question is - “How Would Rick Perry Have Done?” 


Santorum can claim victory because he was NOWHERE before this so a fourth place is good and he will stay in and keep being the most Christian conservative in the field. He said he hoped for a fourth or fifth place so he’s exceeded his own prediction!


This is now a wide-open race. The Iowa caucuses will be very tight and exciting. Texas Gov Rick Perry who announced for president as the Ames poll was unfolding and former Mass Gov. Mitt Romney are the “Big Boys” in this contest by anyone’s measure and they did not play in Iowa so far. 

Some of the other candidates who did poorly should consider a different line of work than president of the United States! Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich got 385; Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, 69; and Michigan Rep. Thad McCotter, 35. Time to check out of the POTUS hotel guys. 

The big picture

The Ames GOP straw poll has produced very interesting “Meta” results – i.e. insights into the big picture issue of the Republican Party. Here is what I conclude: The GOP is essentially divided into three principal tendencies or factions.

The social Christian conservative and economic radical faction. Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum represent the major tips of the iceberg of this element. Deeply devout religious and moralistic, this group also spills over into radical Tea Party economic ideas - especially on the size of government and on the national debt. They REALLY want smaller government!

The Libertarian faction, represented most clearly by Ron Paul, is also a strong current in the GOP. They value less active and internationally adventurous government (you could say they are neo-isolationist) and prize personal freedom. Government for them is too intrusive but they support smaller government for different reasons than social Christian conservatives. They also want to return to the Gold Standard and do away with the Federal Reserve, but for the most part the Ron Paul voters just want more personal freedom and he’s their icon. That conflicts radically with the socially repressive ideas of Bachmann on gay rights and other issues.

Mitt Romney, Pawlenty, and Huntsman represent the Business republicans. They need to play the social conservative card in Iowa and South Caroline but less so in New Hampshire and other parts of the U.S. They do not agree with most of the Bachmann and Paul economic ideas and worry that these would collapse the U.S. economy, and thus destroy the big business environment they represent.

Each of these three factions has to play the nomination for president game differently because there are different constituencies throughout the country, and they need to calculate where they as candidates and leaders of a faction would get the most traction. That means in 2012 a 50-state nomination game as someone from each faction accumulates delegates in different parts of the country. It will be along year!

What about Perry?

Texas Gov. Rick Perry is a real puzzle and a problem for me analytically. He has squarely positioned himself as a Christian faith-centered candidate with his huge Texas prayer event. Yet he wants states to decide on issues such as gay marriage (he is a 10th Amendment supporter). So he straddles into Bachmann and Santorum territory partway.

Perry is also a business guy and a governor of a state with very big job growth and low, low taxes and thus falls into the Mitt Romney and Pawlenty category. The question is can he walk both of those rails successfully and encroach into the support base of both the Romneyites and Bachmannites. We shall see as this competition unfolds. If he can straddle the gap then he represents a fourth element in the GOP, and he may win the nomination because that’s where the greatest number of Republicans stand on the issues. 

Steffen Schmidt is professor of political science at Iowa State University writes for the Des Moines register, The Tribune (Ames, IA), blogs for the Des Moines Register and WNYC “It’s a Free Country,” and is chief political correspondent for Insideriowa.com.