Thompson should skip Iowa poll

One of the first major strategic decisions that Fred Thompson will have to make is whether to enter the legendary Iowa Straw Poll sweepstakes. I’d advise him to skip it. My recommendation doesn’t stem from any concerns about Thompson’s abilities to appeal to Iowans. Nor is it meant to disparage this premiere political spectacle. But with barely two months before the voting, there isn’t enough time for a latecomer like Thompson to be competitive.

And when you take into account that candidates from Ronald Reagan to John McCain have taken a bye on this event and survived to fight another day, it’s a no-brainer that on Aug. 11 Thompson should be comfortably basking in a summer Saturday afternoon, doing some fishing or reading. He shouldn’t be playing a sweaty, nervy game of catch-up.

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Advising anyone to skip anything in Iowa goes against my natural impulses. I love Iowans and am completely comfortable with Iowa’s status as the first and most crucial barometer of presidential politics. But there’s a better time and place for Thompson to revere Iowa and play its politics. The real contest will be next year’s Iowa caucuses, and that’s where Thompson should focus his efforts.

For more than a decade, I polled for former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. Just last year, I helped the Iowa First committee try to elect another Republican governor. Most of the Iowa friends I’ve made through the years have already been recruited to help either McCain or Romney. For months, they’ve been bragging of their hard work and progress. I’ve got to imagine that it would be almost impossible for Thompson to catch up in 60 days, especially with the pace the front-runners have set.

And if Thompson did play and lost badly, the straw poll could be fatal. Just ask fellow Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander. In 1999, the Plaid-Shirted One worked the Ames event hard and finished a distant sixth. He dropped out soon thereafter. That same year, Dan Quayle entered the competition. He was misled by the thunderous applause he’d received as keynote speaker for the 1995 straw poll. He thought Iowans loved him. But it takes more than love to win in Ames. Quayle was poorly organized and understaffed, and he proceeded to finish eighth, behind even Alan Keyes. Days later, frightened by their candidate’s poor performance, Quayle’s entire South Carolina staff switched their allegiance to John McCain, the guy who didn’t even bother to compete that year in Iowa.

Thompson should not worry that one of his competitors will get a bump in the national polls from their Iowa Straw Poll showing. In 1979, George H.W. Bush won the poll but later lost the nomination to Ronald Reagan. Pat Robertson won in 1987, but later petered out. Phil Gramm did surprisingly well in the 1995 straw poll (after winning an earlier straw poll in Louisiana), but couldn’t parlay that into an upset of front-runner Bob Dole. And even after George W. Bush won the 1999 straw poll handily, his poll numbers weren’t bolstered. In fact, in the first poll of GOP voters following Bush’s victory in Iowa, he lost five percentage points in New Hampshire. Could New Hampshire voters have resented Bush’s focus on the other “first state” in presidential politics?
Thompson should also learn a lesson from John McCain’s mishandling of his own decision to bypass Iowa in 1999. The maverick senator publicly criticized the straw poll as a fundraising “scam,” a characterization that doubtless injured his prospects in the Iowa caucuses held less than six months later. There are indeed some unseemly aspects of the “pay to play” premise of the straw poll.

But the press and pundits are perfectly capable of dishing out that criticism without the aid and assistance of a candidate.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.