For political junkies, I think there are four things to look for in the Republican straw poll in Ames, Iowa, today.
The first is how former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty does. This is do-or-die for him, and he has put a lot into winning it. A first-place finish boosts his candidacy. He survives if he comes in second. He’s in trouble if he comes in lower than that. A similar calculus applies to Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn). (The fact that this event is so important to both of them helps explains why they went at each other so hard in Thursday’s debate.)
Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), with a committed base, could make life harder for Pawlenty and Bachmann. He’s looking for first or second, though with his fund-raising base, nothing can knock him out of the race.
Second, it is said that Republicans are really energized to defeat President Obama. But how much energy is there in Iowa, a swing state? It is a highly imperfect measure, but a high turnout at the straw poll today would indicate the energy is there, while a low turnout suggests there is less than we might think. A baseline for measuring: Politico notes today that in 2007, 14,302 went to Ames to cast straw poll ballots. If many more than that number vote, it will be an indication of Republican energy — and also that the candidates with a lot at stake have put together formidable organizations. Less than that indicates an enthusiasm gap for these G.O.P. candidates.
Third, and related to that enthusiasm gap: Watch the media coverage tonight and on Sunday. Does Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s announcement get more attention than the Ames Straw Poll result?
Finally, is there a surprise in Ames? In particular, Mitt Romney is not formally playing in this event, but he still has a formidable Iowa organization. Does he surprise people tonight?
I liked Candy Crowley’s line on CNN last night that the straw poll is a “most meaningful meaningless event.” The Post’s Dan Balz was absolutely right to ask in the Post today: “Is it time to shut down the Iowa straw poll?” But as Dan suggested, Iowa Republicans raise a lot of money out of it, the media keep paying attention and some candidates keep thinking they can use it to help themselves. So it seems for now like a self-perpetuating operation — and I suppose this blog post is part of that process.