The Ames Straw Poll, a quadrennial Iowa ritual for Republican presidential candidates, does not take place until Aug. 13. But Thursday, some would-be nominees revved their financial engines in order to secure starting positions.
Actually, they bid for spaces outside the Iowa State University arena where the poll, a cross between a political convention and a county fair, takes place. The straw poll, which is said to gauge a campaign's strength and organizational prowess, takes place nearly six months before the real voting occurs at the state's caucuses in early February.
It also gives Iowa voters a chance to mingle, eat barbecue and have a little fun. But because some candidates purchase the $30 tickets for their supporters or pay to bus them in from around the state, some critics carp that the vote measures little more than a candidate's willingness to burn through cash.
Take the last election cycle, when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney seriously outspent his rivals. Romney served the best barbecue, and won with 31.6% of the vote.
But several months later, on caucus night, straw poll second-place finisher, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, triumphed. Of course, neither went on to be their party's nominee. That was Arizona Sen. John McCain, who pretty much ignored Iowa the entire election cycle.
The Ames Straw Poll raises money for the Republican Party of Iowa, which requires candidates to spend a minimum of $15,000 for a space in the area outside the arena. The bigger and closer the space, the higher the price.
Today’s highest bidder, according to Craig Robinson of The Iowa Republican website, was Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. Paul, a formidable fundraiser whose libertarian bent guarantees a passionate if modest following, outspent the rest of field with a bid of $31,000.
Romney has said he will not compete in the poll this year, and Jon Huntsman, the former ambassador to China, has said he will skip Iowa altogether.
The second-place bidder, at $18,000, was an obscure Michigan congressman named Thaddeus Cotter.
"Tea party" favorites Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain each spent $17,000 for their spots.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty spent the minimum, said Robinson, for what are regarded as less desirable placements.
Newt Gingrich sent a representative, Robinson said, but did not bid for a spot. He’s got other issues to deal with at the moment.