The Romney campaign announced last night (when the entire punditocracy was picking over the bones of the Newt Gingrich campaign and mulling a run by Texas Gov. Rick Perry) that he is out of the straw polls. Not just the Iowa poll. All of them, says his campaign manager Matt Rhoades:
“Our campaign has made the decision to not participate in any straw polls, whether it’s in Florida, Iowa, Michigan or someplace else. We respect the straw poll process. In the last presidential campaign, we were both strengthened as an organization and learned some important lessons by participating in them. This time we will focus our energies and resources on winning primaries and caucuses.”
Last night, I reached Eric Woolson, who is a senior adviser heading up, among other things, communication for Tim Pawlenty’s effort in Iowa. He told me, “I’m certainly not privy to the Romney strategy, but he and his campaign staff have clearly shown they believe the straw poll is not important and that he can win Iowa without participating in it. We’ll know on Feb. 6 if they are right or wrong.” By contrast, Pawlenty is going all in: “I believe he has been in the state 14 times since the start of 2009. We have a campaign manager, deputy campaign manager, political director, coalitions director and 10 field representatives on the full-time staff. There are five senior advisers, folks like me, who are here in Iowa, too.”
Professor Arthur Sanders of Drake University, a longtime analyst of his state’s caucuses, tells me, “Skipping Ames will not lower his [Romney’s] chance of doing well in Iowa. His strong likelihood of not doing well in Iowa is why he is skipping Ames. He wants to lower expectations in Iowa so that New Hampshire will be seen as his first ‘real test.’ If he competes in Ames, he raises the expectations for how he ‘should do’ in Iowa.”
Romney’s decision also takes him out of Florida and Michigan straw polls. The St. Petersburg Times’s blog observes:
The Republican presidential frontrunner's campaign said Friday night it will not be participating in the Florida GOP’s “Presidency 5” straw poll in September - or any other heavily hyped non-binding election this year. It’s a sharp departure from four years ago when Romney spent millions on early grass roots organizing and efforts to boost his momentum in Florida and other key states. . . .
“The campaign’s decision to not participate in any straw polls makes strategic sense. Florida is an expensive state to campaign in. As a candidate that has already proven his organizational strength and support in Florida, it’s smart for him to focus his time and resources on winning the actual primary,’’ said state Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, a prominent Romney backer. “I know first-hand from Mitt that he is committed to campaigning in Florida throughout the primary process and am very happy to hear that he will also participate in the P5 debate.”
An individual close to Romney’s campaign contends that this is a matter of resources. He told me last night, “Straw polls take a lot of resources away. This looks like a decision to focus resources (time, money, people, effort) in a better way.”
An alternative explanation, which his opponents will be happy to emphasize, is that Romney has a problem with the core group of GOP activists that attend these things, and a loss (maybe a bad one) would do damage to the putative front-runner. It also signals weakness in Iowa and with Christian conservatives, preparing the way for him to downplay the state, a strategy that was already in the works.
And if Romney is downplaying Iowa, others may as well. Jon Huntsman has already bowed out. A late entry like Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) or even a Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) could skip it as well, thereby downgrading the contest and avoiding a state that is tough on candidates who don’t draw very heavily from social conservatives. The eventual winner — maybe Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) or maybe Pawlenty — then wouldn’t have as valuable a boost going into New Hampshire, and Romney wouldn’t have a potentially damaging loss.
All of that makes perfect sense. But it also points to the underlying challenge for Romney’s candidacy. Is he going to have to depend on moderate Republicans and independents (who can vote in places like New Hampshire), as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) did in 2008? That may be a hard road to take in a political season in which the enthusiasm is with staunch conservatives and “moderate” is an invective in the GOP. But you go into a campaign with the candidate you have, and the Romney team has one who is going to have to steer clear of activists’ hot spots.
As Newt Gingrich’s meltdown showed, a lot of presidential campaigning is organization and focus, both of which Romney has. But he’s also going to need to show he can bring the party together, not just carve off a slice of the electorate that is willing to overlook his ideological deviations.