Shortly 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.
Mr. Brownback, on the other hand, went last among the nine candidates, addressing what on television appeared to be a nearly vacant arena. He stuck to the familiar religiously conservative themes of his campaign, although his delivery was hardly as strong as Mr. Huckabee’s.
Perhaps the difference in their speaking styles did make a difference: Mr. Huckabee, in what may be the biggest headline from the straw poll, finished second with 18 percent, ahead of Mr. Brownback’s third-place 15 percent showing. Clearly, the showing boosts Mr. Huckabee’s effort and guarantees him a long-term place in the race. But Mr. Brownback’s performance is probably solid enough to keep him in the race.
Mr. Huckabee’s surprise is probably a good development for the G.O.P.: He is easily the stronger general election candidate of the two. (A case can even be made that he’s the best fall candidate of the entire Republican field). The numbers mean different things for the rest of the candidates.
Ron Paul’s nearly ten percent of the vote, good for fifth place, could certainly be described as respectable, although it was not the breakthrough (read: second-place or strong third place) performance that would have elevated the media’s interest in his grass-roots army from mere curiosity to front-page fascination. What Dr. Paul probably proved is that his national supporters are more devoted than those of any other candidate—media reports noted the number of Paul supporters in Ames with far-out-of-state license plates. But for all the fervor, his network of support within Iowa needs to grow. (Interestingly, Dr. Paul’s campaign may be able to claim that the fix was in at the straw poll, after the controversial, paper tail-less Diebold voting machines they had railed against malfunctioned and delayed the results by an hour.)
Duncan Hunter finished a god-awful ninth, behind even Mr. Giuliani and Mr. McCain, who didn’t show up. The terrible showing was hardly surprising after the lukewarm reception Mr. Hunter’s introduction received and after he delivered a speech that sounded as if he were reading remarks into the record at a House Armed Services Committee. The results only confirmed what has been known about the 60-year-old San Diegan’s lifeless campaign: He’s doomed. And yet it’s conceivable he’ll plod on. Unlike Mr. Thompson, who was thought to have a national future back in the mid-1990s, Mr. Hunter was never supposed to play on this stage in the first place. He’s giving up his House seat next year anyway (and hoping to hand it off to his son), so why not spend the next few months being humored by the emcees at Iowa and New Hampshire G.O.P. events who introduce him (as he was today) as “the next President of the United States?”
Where Tom Tancredo goes from here is uncertain. His performance—fourth place with 14 percent—hardly qualifies as a breakthrough, though it’s also hardly disastrous, considering the lack of money and attention his campaign has so far generated. On Saturday, he used a red meat-laden speech (casting aspersions on the NAACP, all but endorsing war crimes with his bluster that “I have one rule of engagement: We win, you lose,” and declaring that “Judeo-Christian” Americans are locked in a “clash of civilizations” with Muslims) to fire up the crowd, taking advantage of his position as second in the speaking order – before most of the crowd emptied out, as it did before later speeches. Similar oratory might help Mr. Tancredo register on caucus day (a respectable-for-an-obscure-congressman 10 percent showing, say) but Iowa is the only state where he could conceivably do that well. He probably did too well at the straw poll to drop out, even though he’s going nowhere.