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Iowa GOP strong arms presidential candidates into Ames Straw Poll

On Thursday, the Republican Party of Iowa announced that the all-important Ames Straw Poll will be held Aug. 13, 2011. The Straw Poll has traditionally been an early marker to gauge relative support for Republican presidential candidates in advance of the first-in-the-nation Iowa Caucuses.

The state GOP also announced that they will co-host a debate with Fox News on Aug. 11, just two days before the Straw Poll.

The Ames Straw Poll is one of the first events on the nomination calendar that can make or break a presidential campaign. In 2007, the two leading front runners for the GOP nomination — John McCain and Rudy Giuliani — both decided to skip participating in the event, which solidified to the state’s base that the two were not competing for a first place finish in the caucus. Mitt Romney finished first in the poll that year, but the Straw Poll’s true winner was Mike Huckabee with a surprisingly strong second place finish. But the Straw Poll can break the backs of candidates who under perform, with Tommy Thompson ending his campaign in 2007 after a poor showing in Ames.

The timing of the debate just two days before the Straw Poll appears designed to block of the McCain-Giuliani route and force all the candidates to participate in Ames. The Des Moines Register reported that the Republican Party of Iowa is still negotiating details with Fox, but participation in the Straw Poll may be required in order to gain entrance to the nationally televised debate.

Tying the party fundraiser in Ames with the debate on Fox, an influential outlet for conservatives, will give incentive to candidates campaigning for Iowa’s leadoff nominating caucuses to participate in the straw poll, state party chairman Matt Strawn said.

It is in the best interest of the state party to have as many candidates as possible in Ames. Though most media only tune in to see how the presidential candidates place, the Straw Poll is primarily a major fundraiser for the Iowa GOP and can draw in large sums for the party.

Unfortunately for presidential aspirants, the poll has the exact opposite effect on their own campaign war chests. To compete in the Straw Poll requires a major investment of campaign funds, since the poll is largely a measure of how effectively a candidate can turn out their supporters. Only 14,000 people voted in the 2007 poll, so investing funds to subsidize travel to the event is key. Romney spent the most money in the 2007 Ames poll leading to his first place finish.

The potential necessity of the Straw Poll would likely prove to be most troubling for the higher profile candidates such as Sarah Palin or Mitt Romney. Among a crowded field of contenders, a fifth or sixth place standing won’t prove as damning for the second tier candidates as in 2007 and could still be spun as a stronger than expected showing. But if one of the candidates who entered the campaign with high name recognition — a group that also includes Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee — slips out of the top three, they’ll be seen as significantly less viable.

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