Ron Paul may be in the ultimate damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation as next month’s Ames Straw Poll draws closer.
When he ran in 2007, the Texas congressman managed just 9% in the quadrennial poll. Since that time, his reputation as the king of the Republican straw polls has grown. This year, Paul reeled off high-profile wins at the Conservative Political Action Conference and Republican Leadership Conference as well as smaller events around the country.
Paul is also spending and organizing for Ames in a way that he didn’t in 2007. He has increased his time in Iowa and made the second-largest media buy of the election cycle. His son, Tea Party favorite Senator Rand Paul, is traveling the state on his dad’s behalf. Ron Paul also purchased the most prominent location for the daylong fair and straw poll.
However, the headwinds have increased as well. Mitt Romney is not officially competing in the straw poll after spending more than $2 million last time. Nonetheless, he maintains a strong base of support, which is reflected in the polls. A surging Michele Bachmann seems to line up better with Iowa evangelicals, a large and influential straw poll constituency. Tim Pawlenty has spent heavily in Iowa and is staking his campaign on a good showing in Ames, an effort that is now reflected in stronger polling. Add to that the possibility of Texas Governor Rick Perry entering the race and it becomes clear that Paul will need that straw-poll mojo to be competitive.
And in this lies the dilemma. If Paul polls fourth or fifth at Ames, it will feed the existing narrative that he is a second-tier candidate with a devoted but small legion of fans. Ames will be, at best, a wash.
If, on the other hand, Paul finishes first or second, it will feed the narrative that he’s a straw-poll paper tiger with a small but devoted legion of fans that swamped Ames from around the country. The media will give itself permission to ignore the result and instead focus on the “serious” candidates. After a couple of news cycles, it will all be forgotten. While this scenario would do some damage to other candidates, it would serve Congressman Paul little.
Only a significant increase in polling ahead of Ames will support the idea, in conjunction with a strong showing, that the congressman deserves to be seen as a top-tier candidate. The clock is ticking and Paul remains mired in the single digits despite his efforts. The Ames Straw Poll is scheduled for August 13.
Don Rasmussen is a political consultant, writer and former Ron Paul staffer. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he is pursuing a graduate degree in political management.