What the Straw Poll Accomplished

081307 kornacki thompson What the Straw Poll AccomplishedShortly after the Iowa Straw Poll was wrapped up this weekend, Tommy Thompson was out of the presidential race. The 67-year-old former Wisconsin Governor and Bush cabinet member had been unusually honest in playing the expectation game beforehand.

“I've said all along that if I don't come in first or second, I'll drop out of the race,'' he reminded the media last week.

Well, when the votes were in and tallied, Mr. Thompson came in sixth.

This death-by-straw-poll, in Mr. Thompson’s case, can be considered a mercy killing. His campaign had been hard to justify all along: There had been no clamoring for him to run; his welfare reform glory days in Wisconsin came more than a decade ago; and his soporific style and generic message made him an invisible presence at debates.

Saturday, August 11 marked the fourth renewal of the Iowa G.O.P. presidential straw poll, a tradition of questionable integrity that was conceived in 1980 and now serves as a quadrennial test of early organizing strength and volunteer energy for candidates in the lead-off caucus state. George H.W. Bush used a surprise victory in 1979 to establish himself as Ronald Reagan’s chief rival for the nomination; Pat Robertson notched a stunning triumph in 1987 that foreshadowed his second-place caucus showing months later; Bob Dole failed to meet expectations in 1995, foreshadowing his weak three-point win on caucus day; and George W. Bush cemented his front-runner status with a commanding win in 1999, sending three candidates packing within days.

The 2007 straw poll, though, was not about who would win—that slot was ceded to Mitt Romney when Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and soon-to-be candidate Fred Thompson all declined to participate.

Still, Mr. Romney spent lavishly, and his campaign sought to downplay expectations in the run-up to Saturday, hoping to generate media coverage of a “surprisingly strong” showing. Whether the media will take the bait is unclear, but the 31 percent he won seems perfectly in line with the financial and organizational supremacy he brought to the event.

The real drama was the undercard—the scrapping by the seven non-Romney candidates (eight, if you count businessman John Cox, making a rare on-stage appearance with the G.O.P. contenders) to free themselves from obscurity with a stand-out showing and to avoid the fate that Mr. Thompson now likely faces.

Perhaps the most riveting sub-contest was between Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback, each seeking to be the standard-bearer of the religious conservatives who hold disproportionate sway in the caucuses (and at the straw poll as well). Neither has raised substantial money and both struggle in polls, although Mr. Huckabee, an ordained minister with a quick wit and knack for public performance, is now creeping up near 10 percent in Iowa surveys. (Mr. Brownback, meanwhile, was seen as better organized for the straw poll.) Saturday was seen a potential elimination match between them.

Mr. Huckabee, whose cash-strapped campaign was unable to provide the kind of flourishes others did, seemed to bank on his compelling oratory swaying “soft” delegates who had been shipped to the straw poll by other campaigns. (It is a secret ballot, after all). “I can’t buy you—I can’t even rent you,” he told the crowd. The preacher man’s words did seem to strike a chord, as he brought the hall to silence with an account of the visit he and his daughter took to Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial.