Mitt Romney - The current frontrunner for the GOP nomination won the Ames Straw Poll in 2007, and that victory helped establish him as a credible alternative to the frontrunners for the 2008 nomination. Although he isn't officially participating this year and hasn't campaigned as much in Iowa as in other states this year, he still retains a significant following in the state. Some in the blogosphere scratch their heads at poll numbers indicating he's essentially tied with Michele Bachmann in the state, claiming that it must be mere name recognition. However, while Romney fans may not be as vocal about their support for the former Governor of Massachusetts as certain other candidates' fans, they are no less loyal.
It's my prediction that Romney will decisively beat admittedly low expectations. While he likely won't win, it's not outside the realm of possibility that he'll place in the top four. If he does, in spite of barely campaigning in the state this year, then not only would it force every candidate who places below him in the straw poll to reconsider their bids, but it would also deal a blow to the "weak frontrunner" narrative that is following his campaign.
Michele Bachmann - The Congresswoman from Minnesota is the prohibitive favorite to win the straw poll, and it is my prediction she will do so. She is, essentially, only challenged by Romney in the state, though that may change if certain other potential candidates enter the race (but we'll get to them later). What will a win in the poll do for her campaign? Well, at this point, it will only meet expectations. She would need to win by a significant margin, say more than ten percent over the second place finisher, to cause even mild surprise among pundits. Not winning the poll, of course, even if she finished second, would be a blow to her effort to distinguish herself as a credible candidate, not only in terms of rhetoric, but organization, as well. After all, that's what this straw poll truly tests about the candidates.
Tim Pawlenty - Organization is, perhaps, all the former Governor of Minnesota has going for him, in Iowa or anywhere else. Though that organization may help him in the straw poll, it cannot make up for the enthusiasm gap between him and several other candidates. His campaign has tried to lower expectations, but at this point, it's hard to say what a realistic expectation would be. I probably wouldn't predict that he'd even be in the top three if it weren't for the fact that most of his opponents have even less going for them than he has. While his campaign would desperately try to spin even a third place finish as a positive development, and while their hopes would no doubt hinge on lower place finishers dropping out after the poll, it wouldn't change the fact that he's just not that popular.
My prediction is he'll take third place (by a very small margin), he'll spin the results as best he can, and he'll hope against hope that he can think of something, anything, to justify staying in the race at least until the Iowa Caucuses next year, when he will again try to lower expectations.
Ron Paul - The political fortunes of the septuagenarian Congressman from Texas have increased over the last few years, but only in a relative sense. His ardent and vocal supporters ensure that he wins virtually every straw poll and online poll in which he is a candidate, but they may not be quite enough to propel him to victory in Iowa. Certainly, he'll do well in the straw poll, especially with the organization he's built up, but it's my prediction he won't rise above second place. It won't really matter how his campaign or his supporters choose to spin the results, as the most interesting and important part of the Iowa campaign will be how he does in the Caucuses. But I'll refrain from making that prediction, for now.
Herman Cain - He won't win. He won't even place. Of the nine declared candidates, he may, may make it to fifth place on the strength of his ideas and his business credentials, which are so desperately needed in the White House right now. However, he's not ready for prime time, as they say, and people can tell that. He won't drop out, though. Even if he loses to a write-in candidate, he's in it for as long as he can afford to be. Herman Cain's is a candidacy of ideas, and the main idea is that we need someone who is not a career politician in the race. So far, he's the only person who undisputably fits that description. I don't know how long he'll last, but he'll stay in the race after today, no matter what the outcome.
Newt Gingrich - All the former Speaker of the House of Representatives has, at this point, is ideas; and that's likely all he'll have after today, as well. People can talk all they want about how John McCain lost in Iowa and then went on to win the nomination, but Gingrich is not McCain. For one thing, Gingrich is actually competing in Iowa. For another, his staff didn't resign because of money problems; they resigned because of him. As with Cain, placing fifth in the polls may give him some cover, especially since it would mean beating extremely low expectations. However, it is my prediction that he won't even do that well, considering he doesn't have enough money to actively participate. That will also give him some cover to stay in the race (for a little longer, at least), but he'd have to do better than at least a few candidates for anyone to take him seriously after today.
Rick Santorum - The former Senator from Pennsylvania has spent an exhaustive amount of time in Iowa lately, as it is pretty much his only hope for doing well in this election. Expectations are about as low for him as they are for Gingrich and Cain; it will essentially be a three-way tie for fifth between them among the low-tier candidates. Unlike Gingrich and Cain, though, Santorum may be realistic enough to leave the race if he places too low. He has ideas, principles, and just as much to say as anyone else; but you can't run for president on ideas alone, and he'd have a better platform for those ideas at his old job on Fox News than as a struggling also-ran.
Jon Huntsman - Officially not competing in either the straw poll or Iowa itself gives him perhaps the lowest expectations of all the declared candidates on the ballot. The former Governor of Utah has no real base, organization, or strategy for Iowa, except possibly to not even try to beat his ground-level expectations. Like Romney, he'll be campaigning in New Hampshire while all other candidates work to win, or at least not lose, in Ames.
Thaddeus McCotter - Even most people who have been following the race may struggle to remember the Congressman from Michigan who entered the race just in time to get a spot on the straw poll ballot. That places him just above the other "last-tier" candidates (Fred Karger, Buddy Roemer, and Gary Johnson) who couldn't even make it onto the ballot in Ames. Because his name recognition is so low and he began his campaign so late, McCotter is the only candidate besides Huntsman who can "survive" a last-place finish among those whose names are actually on the ballot. But he won't survive for long if he can't at least find his way into a televised debate.
Sarah Palin - Ah, one can never write an article about the forthcoming Republican nomination without at least mentioning the 2008 vice presidential candidate, who has been spending a certain amount of time in Iowa lately. Though she won't "officially" make a decision for another month or so, she can't go anywhere in any state without drawing media attention, whether deliberately or inadvertantly. She's not officially on the ballot in Ames, but there is room to write in a candidate, and her following is certainly devoted, whether she runs for president or not. Look for her to do better than at least half the field today.
Rick Perry - The Governor of Texas is another potential write-in candidate, and he is announcing his candidacy for the presidency today. While many GOP operatives in Iowa may not like the idea of him "stealing the limelight" from the straw poll with his announcement, there are no doubt plenty of voters in Iowa who would love have Governor Perry as an official candidate on the ballot and will be happy to write him in. He'll beat some, or maybe all, of the lower-tiered candidates, and that may intimidate one or two of them into leaving the race. His campaign will spin any outcome as a positive for him, of course.
My prediction, though, is that many pundits will watch how he does against Romney in the poll. Neither has spent much time in Iowa, and both are considered national frontrunners. Indeed, as much as Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty seem to be vying for second place in the overall nomination, the fight for first is generally considered to be between Romney and Perry. If Perry places behind Romney in the poll today, then "no one" will take it as a sign of strength or weakness on either candidates' part; but if he places ahead of Romney, then keep your eyes open for a host of pundits (and Perry staffers) to portray it as evidence that Perry is definitely the stronger of the two.
Results - I predict the order of winners to be:
- Michele Bachmann
- Ron Paul
- Tim Pawlenty
- Mitt Romney
- Rick Perry
- Sarah Palin
- Herman Cain
- Rick Santorum
- Newt Gingrich
- Jon Huntsman
- Thaddeus McCotter