Ames Straw Poll: Make-or-break for Bachmann and Pawlenty

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The Ames Straw Poll’s track record of predicting the eventual GOP presidential nominee is on par with President Obama’s track record of predicting job growth. Yet for two candidates in the field, Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a poor showing at the event could foretell the imminent derailment of their presidential bids.

Since her entrance into the field, Bachmann’s candidacy has generated a tremendous amount of intensity and an outpouring of emotion among Tea Partiers and potential Iowa caucus-goers. The latest Rasmussen survey (released Aug. 8th) has Bachmann leading Romney by one point in the Hawkeye State; she also has secured the endorsement of Iowa Tea Party chairman Ryan Rhodes. But outside of Iowa, Bachmann’s candidacy is beginning to stall, particularly in the all-important battleground state of Florida. Unfortunately for Bachmann, who is not known as a strong organizer, she is really battling expectations. If Bachmann doesn’t finish first or second at the Ames event, she will have underperformed, and that could significantly hurt her campaign as it moves beyond the favorable fields of Iowa.

In contrast to Bachman and her shiny new bus, Tim Pawlenty is limping into Ames on fumes. Once considered a top-tier GOP contender, Pawlenty has consistently underperformed in just about every poll. In desperate need of a fundraising boost and a change in the media narrative, Pawlenty needs to achieve a first- or second-place finish in Ames or his campaign will likely never take off with primary voters and he will soon be a candidate for the field of presidential broken dreams. A victory, on the other hand, could help propel Pawlenty back into the national spotlight, which is why Team Pawlenty has spent heavily on organizing and turnout for the event.

Although GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney is not actively taking part in the Ames Straw Poll and Rick Perry is a write-in candidate, Bachmann and Pawlenty are likely to encounter a major hurdle in Ron Paul, who is seeking to dramatically improve on his fifth-place finish in 2007. Paul has directed more resources towards the straw poll this year, and his libertarian supporters are known for their organizing prowess.

While the Ames Straw Poll is a nonbinding mock election that rewards those campaigns that can best organize on the fly, a strong showing is vitally important for Bachmann and Pawlenty. Without it, both candidates could find themselves on the outside of what is shaping up to be a much narrower field in the very near future.

Ford O’Connell and Steve Pearson are co-founders of CivicForumPAC and advisors to conservative candidates on Internet outreach, communications and campaign strategy.