Poll Shows Tight Republican Contest Heading to Ames, Iowa

Politics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Aug 8, 2011   |   10:38AM   |   Washington, DC

With just one week left before Republican voters in Iowa head to Ames for the traditional straw poll that officially kicks off the presidential election season, a new poll from Rasmussen Reports shows a tight contest.

Rasmussen shows pro-life Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota in a virtual tie with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is campaigning on a pro-life platform at 22-21 percent. Rick Perry, the pro-life Texas governor, receives 12 percent of the support of Iowa Republicans in the survey while pro-life Rep. Ron Paul of Texas receives the backing of 16 percent.

Tim Pawlenty, the pro-life former Minnesota governor, is next with 11 percent and no other candidate in the race tops double digits. The poll rounds out with pro-life former Speaker Newt Gingrich getting 5 percent, pro-life businessman Herman Cain at 4 percent, pro-life former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman at 2 percent, and pro-life former Sen. Rick Santorum not measuring 1 percent.

The poll shows Iowa Republicans still haven’t made up their minds which candidate they will support at the Ames straw poll — as just 28% of potential Iowa Caucus participants are absolutely certain of how they will vote, while the rest could change their mind. Among those who are certain of their vote, Ron Paul is on top at 27% as he has a strong backing of libertarian supporters but little appeal to Republicans beyond that.

Fox News and the Washington Examiner will sponsor a GOP debate this Thursday night that could further change the tenor of the race before the Saturday vote.

“Bachmann is the most popular candidate among potential caucus-goers. Seventy percent (70%) have a favorable opinion of her, including 37% with a Very Favorable opinion. No other candidate in the field earns Very Favorable reviews from more than 20%,” according to Rasmussen. “Romney earns favorable reviews from 62%, Pawlenty from 61%, Paul from 58% and Perry from 50%. Perry is the least well-known of the GOP candidates, with 19% who have no opinion of him one way or the other.”

“Cain is viewed favorably by 49% and unfavorably by 36%. For Huntsman, the numbers are 26% favorable and 49% unfavorable,” the survey said. “The least popular candidate is Gingrich. Just 33% offer a positive assessment of the former House speaker, while 62% voice a negative opinion.”

But the poll leaves out some of the underlying themes of the campaign in Iowa that make predicting the straw poll outcome difficult or could impact the news coming out of the event.

The poll is somewhat disappointing news for Bachmann, who has been as high as 30 percent in Iowa in polls from July, but saw her percentage of support drop to the low 20s in this survey. Some political observers say her campaign operation is not as strongly focused on turning out voters to Ames as that of Tim Pawlenty or Ron Paul. With primary presidential politics all about momentum and expectations, anything but a very strong first place finish could spell trouble for the conservative congresswoman.

Pawlenty, on the other hand, has been competing strong in Iowa and making it a last stand for a campaign that was expected to perform much better nationally than it has. A better than expected finish in Ames — 2nd place or a very strong 3rd place showing — could help Pawlenty recapture the focus necessary to win the nomination.

The poll also includes Perry, who is the subject of much of the presidential buzz on the Republican side at the moment. However, Perry’s name will not be on the straw poll ballot and he will not be competing in the Thursday night debate. Will losing the attention of the national media cause his stock to drop?

Romney’s name will appear on the straw poll ballot and his team has been working behind the scenes to turn out supporters, but will Romney’s decision to essentially skip the Ames event cost him support by making it appear the national front-runner is not as strong as national polling data currently shows? The perception that his support is mostly based on name identification and that it is a mile wide and an inch deep could be reflected in Ames. But a strong showing could clear the field for him.

Finally, Ron Paul has the potential to surprise in Iowa with a strong showing. But will a potentially strong finish translate into anything other than his ability to mobilize his small cadre of supporters for another straw poll? Paul would need to somehow find support among the 80-85 percent of Republicans who have never climbed on board the libertarian bandwagon to make the case that a good Ames finish is an indicator of real support from the mainstream of the GOP.

Some Republicans, like columnist George Will, say the results of the straw poll are overblown.

“The Ames poll has not reliably predicted the winner of Iowa’s caucuses five months later, and the caucuses have been an uncertain trumpet regarding the winner of the nomination,” Will writes. “In 1979, George H.W. Bush won the poll and the subsequent caucuses but lost the nomination to Ronald Reagan​. In 1987, Pat Robertson won the poll, Bob Dole​ won the caucuses and Bush won the nomination. In 1995, Phil Gramm​ and Bob Dole tied in the poll, then Dole won the caucuses and the nomination. In 1999, George W. Bush won the poll, the caucuses and the nomination. In 2007, Romney won the poll, Mike Huckabee​ won the caucuses and John McCain​ won the nomination.”

But the Ames Straw Poll can make a difference in the race, according to James Antle of American Spectator.

“In 1979, George H.W. Bush was roughly where Jon Huntsman is in the Republican race this year. Winning Ames and then Iowa launched him toward a second-place finish and made possible his spot on the ticket with Ronald Reagan. Ames and Iowa similarly established, however briefly, Pat Robertson as a force in the 1988 contest — and the GOP throughout the 1990s,” he added.

“Phil Gramm’s inability to finish ahead of Bob Dole at Ames was an early signal that he wasn’t going to be successful as the conservative alternative to Dole. By the time the caucuses rolled around, Pat Buchanan​ had clearly secured that role,” he continued. “Ames helped knock Dan Quayle​ and Elizabeth Dole from the 2000 race, giving George W. Bush a clearer path to the nomination. Mike Huckabee’s strong second place showing at Ames was crucial to upsetting Mitt Romney​ in the caucuses, which in turn derailed Romney’s most plausible path to the nomination.”

“Even when the straw poll and the caucuses haven’t predicted the nominee, they have played a large role in shaping the outcome in recent years,” he concluded.