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The Ames Straw Poll, explained

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Jim Slosiarek AP Republican presidential hopeful U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann greets Deborah Wagner, right, during an event at the Kirkwood Hotel in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2011. (AP Photo/Cedar Rapids Gazette, Jim Slosiarek) Most of the major Republican presidential candidates will descend on Ames, Iowa, this weekend to participate in what is arguably the first major vote of the 2012 presidential contest: the Ames Straw Poll.

But just what is the Ames Straw Poll? And why should you care about it?

The Fix has your answers.

What is the Ames Straw Poll?

First held in 1979, the straw poll — also known as the Iowa Straw Poll — is, at its most basic, a fundraiser for the Iowa Repubican Party. Often described as a hybrid of a county fair and a political convention, the straw poll is a vote among Iowa Republican activists.

It’s generally seen as an early indicator of a presidential candidate’s strength in the first-in-the-nation caucuses and, by extension, in the presidential nominating contest to come.

Because of the weight the straw poll is given, presidential campaigns have been both made and broken by it — the most striking of which was then-former governor Lamar Alexander’s (Tenn.) decision to drop out of the 2000 presidential race after finishing fifth in the 1999 straw poll.

Presidential races are all about momentum – momentum determines fundraising and lots of other things – and Ames is the place where significant shifts in that momentum first take place.

Three of the last five winners of the Ames Straw Poll have gone on to win the Iowa caucuses – George W. Bush in 1999, Bob Dole in 1995 and George H.W. Bush in 1979 – and all but the elder Bush went on to win the GOP nomination the following year.

How does it work?

Candidates reserve space at the gathering – with prime locations costing more – where they can make their case to the voters, and pay for people to be bused to Ames in order to vote for them (or someone else; the voter doesn’t have to officially pledge their support to the candidate that paid their way).

In the 2011 straw poll, Texas Rep. Ron Paul (R) has the most prized piece of real estate — right outside the convention center where the vote will take place. He paid $31,000 for it.

The candidates also each get to address the crowd.

Voters cast one ballot for their preferred candidate, and all the ballots are totaled like in a regular primary. Unlike some other straw polls, though, only residents of Iowa are allowed to participate.

Who participates?

Six of the nine major candidates in the Republican presidential primary have reserved space at Ames and are actively rallying support for the straw poll. They are: Paul, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, businessman Herman Cain, former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (Mich.).

The ballot also includes three major candidates who are not actively rallying support for the straw poll: former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman and former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.). The campaigns of Romney and Huntsman have been de-emphasizing the importance of Iowa — focusing instead on the first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire while Gingrich’s operation has run into financial problems and simply can’t afford to play in Ames.

Two potential candidates who aren’t yet in the race – Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin – are not on the ballot but could gain significant support as write-in candidates. (There is a write-in option).

Is the straw poll a good predictor of future results?

As discussed above, history shows the straw poll has been a reasonably reliable gauge of strength in Iowa and the GOP presidential primary.

At the same time, the straw poll was won in 1987 by televangelist Pat Robertson, who went on to finish second in the caucuses and third in the nominating contest. In 2007, Romney won the straw poll but lost the caucuses to former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, and neither man won the party’s nomination.

As with this year’s straw poll, the 2007 contest was largely ignored by two front-runners at the time– Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. So while Ames may be a good indicator of strength in Iowa, its predictive power for the larger GOP race is less clear.

More than perhaps anything, though, the Ames Straw Poll can be the end for a presidential candidate.

It served as a death knell for several campaigns in recent years, including former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson and then-Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.) in 2007; and former vice president Dan Quayle, ex-Sen. Elizabeth Dole (N.C.) and Alexander in 1999.

What are the major storylines to follow?

* Will Pawlenty get the boost at Ames that many think he needs to have a chance at winning the caucuses? Or does Bachmann’s rise in the polls completely end his hopes of winning the state?

* Will Paul, who generally performs well in straw polls thanks to an active and libertarian-leaning base of support, extend his support to more mainstream Republicans?

* Does Perry, whose supporters are already spending money in Iowa, gain significant write-in support in a state that would be vital to his potential campaign? And do he and Palin combine to secure what amount to votes protesting the state of the current GOP presidential field?

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