Romney garnered 31.5 percent of votes from the field of Republicans who traveled to Ames, Iowa, to participate in the party fundraiser/campaign tradition, besting former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who managed a strong second with 18.1 percent.
Other candidates trailed behind: Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback captured third with 15 percent of the vote and Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo landed in fourth with 13.7 percent.
The Romney campaign, quick to capitalize, said in a statement, “This important victory sends a signal to grassroots Republican activists across the country that we are working hard to earn their support, and that we are ready to begin the work of strengthening our economy, our military and our families.”
In order to cast their ballots, each voter was required to donate $35 to the party; this year’s event drew only some 14,000 voters, as opposed to nearly 24,000 eight years ago.
Despite the modest turnout, the victory was still widely seen by analysts as proof that Romney remains the frontrunner in the critical first caucus state.
“I would have to say, and I don’t think I’d get much argument, that from an Iowa perspective, Mitt Romney has put together the strongest ground game we’ve ever seen in Iowa. It just is,” Chuck Laudner, executive director of the Republican Party of Iowa, told the Associated Press ahead of the vote.
The results appeared to lack the impact of some past straw polls due to the absence of three of the top contenders for the Republican nomination — former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Arizona Sen. John McCain and still-unannounced candidate former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson. That said, the straw poll had been seen as a test for Romney, who has typically trailed Giuliani and Thompson in many national polls, although he has raked in more financial support than any other Republican.
In addition to its strong showing in Iowa, the Romney campaign was bolstered by news this week that the governor continued to lead among Republicans likely to vote in the caucuses scheduled for Jan. 14, 2008.
According to a University of Iowa poll released Wednesday, Romney captured the support of 27 percent of likely caucus voters, ahead of Giuliani with 11.6 percent and Fred Thompson with 6.5 percent. But no candidate should be too quick to claim victory as the largest group, 31.1 percent of those polled, said they remained undecided.
In the end, the sixth-place finish by former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson may be the most newsworthy of the items to emerge from the hot August day in Ames. Headed into the non-binding vote, Thompson had said he would drop out if he failed to finish either first or second.
The campaign had no immediate announcement, but already pundits appeared to smell blood in the water. Even before the vote, Washington Post columnist Dan Balz opined: “After Tomorrow, One Less Thompson?”
For the one-time popular Midwestern governor, the final days heading into the poll found him waxing nostalgic about campaigns might-have-run.
“I should have run in ’96 and I should have run in 2000,” Thompson told Balz in Des Moines. “I got talked out of it. I would have been in a stronger position in both times because I would have been a sitting governor and just coming off huge successes in welfare and school choices.”
Although some analysts have questioned whether the straw poll should have the power to knock a candidate out of the race, some Iowa officials said that was one of the roles of the contest.
“What the straw poll is going to do is weed out some of the field,” former Hamilton County Republican chairman Roger Hughes, who helped devise the poll, told the Des Moines Register.
Should the straw poll sound the death knell for Tommy Thompson’s campaign, his would not be the first White House dream to die among the tents, concerts and barbeques of the small town of Ames. Although the poll amounts to little more than a fundraising event for the Iowa Republican Party, pundits have turned the it into an early test of campaigns’ abilities to organize supporters, coordinate buses to bring voters to the events and attract last-second supporters.
That expectation helped the 1999 event bolster the campaign run of then-Gov. George W. Bush and spelled the end of the campaign of Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander.
This year, the organizers of the event suffered back-to-back setbacks when both Giuliani and McCain announced they would forego the contest. That, coupled with what analysts have said is a lack of real enthusiasm among Republicans for the 2008 campaign thus far, led to far smaller crowds in Ames.
Despite the thin turnout, the poll still fell victim to mechanical problems: Voting machine malfunctions forced more than 1,500 ballots to be recounted by hand, delaying the results by more than an hour.