The EFM Feature
Herman Cain

Yes, Charles, we do know straw polls.  We’ve made two major, self-financed efforts — both in the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.  First, in 2006 we made a stealth effort, attempting to shock the political establishment by showing that a guy with 1% name recognition could do well in the South.  We succeeded.

Next, in 2010, we went big.  Mitt wasn’t anyone’s idea of a “stealth candidate,” and our only real option was to win.  We couldn’t just beat expectations, we had to actually win the thing — but doing it (once again) without help from the campaign.  So we decided on a full-court press.  We co-sponsored the conference, distributed hundreds of copies of Mitt’s book, handed out piggy banks that said “Elect a president who won’t break the bank,” and tapped into our EFM southern network for delegates.

We won.  Barely.  But we won.

What have we learned about straw polls?  First, you can’t count on the crowd swinging your way, so you gotta bring your own crowd.  Conventions like the SRLC (and others) develop their own psychology.  A few good (or bad) speeches can turn momentum on a dime, and in Florida last week Perry followed a bad debate with a lackluster speech.  A friend on the ground reported seeing Perry buttons peeled off as early as Friday morning — replaced invariably by Cain buttons.

When we organized our straw polls, we relied on known networks of Mitt supporters — people who would not be swayed by a good (or bad) speech.  They were for Mitt come hell or high water.  We had a “floor” number that we could absolutely count on, and they brought with them an inherent energy that was infectious and won over more than a few wavering delegates.

Second, you have to do everything you can to lower expectations.  As hard as you’re working there may be someone else working harder.  In the days leading up to the 2010 SRLC, we learned that Ron Paul’s supporters were showing up in force, with a major donor buying them hundreds and hundreds of tickets.  As soon as we learned this, our message was simple: we hope we’ll do well, but we’re really playing for second place.  When we won, we were genuinely shocked — and so were many members of the media.

Third, understand what you’re playing for.  When you actually decide to compete, a straw poll is often called “a test of strength,” and that’s exactly what it is.  Can you — on a micro scale — demonstrate the organizational strength to perform well when the eyes of the media are on you?  If you’re going to play the game, you have to do well.

And here’s the thing: with enough time, money, and effort, you can do well.  So that’s why I was absolutely stunned by Perry’s terrible showing in Florida.  I assumed with all his public efforts he had the poll locked up.  Heck, his campaign made it clear that they intended to win.  I assumed he was carrying in his back pocket an absolute guaranteed 800 votes (an easily attainable number at a large conference).  I had no idea that he was depending primarily on his poll standing and underlying popularity to win over a convention audience.

The bottom line?  This was a rookie mistake, a completely unforced error that came at exactly the worst time — just as his debate performances were raising doubts about his candidacy.  He had a chance to reverse the momentum and reassure supporters with a big straw poll win — a straw poll win that was his for the taking.  Victory was simply a matter of money, organization, and effort.

I understand why Mitt is bypassing straw polls.  Contesting them is hard (after the 2010 SRLC I wanted to sleep for a week, but I had to go to work the next Monday), and the benefits rarely outweigh the risks.  Michele Bachmann got minimal bounce from her big win at Ames while Perry’s going to have to endure yet another round of negative news coverage after Cain trounced him in Florida.

We organized our efforts entirely on our own, raising our own funds, and using the labor of friends.  I look back at our successes not as turning points for Mitt but as short-lived “shows of strength” that moved the ball down the field just a tiny bit, and — truth be told — provided us with many fun memories (our oldest daughter is still upset that our son got more media attention than she did).

Perry’s recent troubles aren’t fatal to his campaign.  Think of them more like a set of consecutive quarterback sacks when he had a chance to move the chains.  But we can’t read too much into the last four days.  After all — and to carry on the football analogy — we’re still in the first quarter, the score is still tied, and — while we may have some nice momentum — there’s a lot of game left to be played.


Comments and Discussion

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7 Responses to Understanding Straw Polls

  1. Jonesy says:

    “Perry’s recent troubles aren’t fatal to his campaign.”

    While I agree that most candidates could readily recover from the recent damage Perry has taken, I don’t think Perry can. I don’t think he has the capability. When they stand him next to Mitt at debates he looks like a little man w/very limited capacity to say anything coherent. It’s happened three times in a row and I’ve seen nothing to indicate that Perry can avoid this fate in upcoming debates. Additionally, money will be walking away from his camp in a hurry.

    The one slim chance Perry has would be for several of the competent candidates to attack Mitt in a big way. If the intelligent players make major efforts to pick Mitt apart, Perry could squeak back into this thing, but there’s no way he’ll get anywhere on his own. IMO, if the other candidates don’t team-attack Mitt in a big way, Perry is done.

  2. Stan says:

    The other candidates would be foolish to gang up on Romney for they may suffer the same fate as Perry has. As far as debating savy Mitt outshines all the rest. The other candidates just can’t make clear their ideas to the public while Romney has his book to back him up in which he never deviates from. So, with this in mind the others will continue to attack Perry who is the easier target. This is just my opinion but politically for the other candidates even though Romney is a stronger debater than Perry, I think they will choose to whittle away at Perry to make them look good.

  3. ccr says:

    Perry’s 3 debate performances are indicative of his past debate experience………..thin. Very. He has debated little in his lengthy political career. Understandably, I can see why.

    The “rookie” remark about the FL straw poll, is accurate. Mitt learned the first time on the national election scene that the $$, time, efforts for straw polls do NOT translate into delegates. Perry, in his first time on the national scene, has learned that poll numbers, tuff talkin’ and cowboy boots don’t translate into a straw poll win.

    IMO, Perry is NOT prepared for the national scene, with either the experience or an intellectual plan on how to lead the country in a TURN AROUND (and that is not to mention the skeletons in the closet that would undoubtedly come out in a general election.)

  4. gene says:

    It seems like so-called conservatives keepying to come up with a new…FLAVOR OF THE MONTH …to stop Mitt 1
    and he keeps shining ! This Christie thing makes Ann Coulter sorta iffy in judgement….his record is anything but conservative…except fighting the Unions!
    Is Cain Able ?? Very cute….ha ha ha. (o:
    He ain’t gonna make it !
    He brings up 3 points…Mitt talks about 59 points !
    Cain is being a little too simpleistic….those who want to over haul our tax structure completely are not being
    thoughtful…..REPAIR IT…but don’t throw out the bay w/the water!
    Cain’s ideas: does not consider Charity donations that are tax write off….will those donations vanish ?
    Probably. How about the write offs on interest rates on day to day basis(Mortgages).
    Capital gains are just when you sell….millions of dollars will be lost to those who are not selling and would normally write of the rates I just mentioned.
    Sorry, Cain your plan is not able!
    9% is too drastic…period !
    Mitt will display that before it is done!

  5. Daniel Peterson says:

    What is worrisome from a Romney supporter’s point of view right now, I think, is the fact that Republicans are told over and over again that they need somebody else in the race, that Romney is a liberal-to-moderate RINO for whom nobody is enthusiastic, and so forth. Whether or not the notion is true, it may well take on a life of its own.

    Perry, it turns out, isn’t likely be the conservatives’ messiah after all, so . . . Chris Christie, maybe? Paul Ryan? Mitch Daniels? Jeb Bush? Anybody? Anybody but Romney.

    It would be an interesting study to look at just how Ronald Reagan was viewed during his presidential runs. He was, many thought, too old. Not good enough in debates? Guilty of having held problematic positions on several issues. Perhaps even a flip-flopper. In retrospect, we recognize that he was a great president, but many, even in the Republican Party, didn’t recognize his greatness immediately.

    In the seemingly never-ending conservative quest for Reagan II, it would be helpful to understand that the greatness of the real flesh and blood Ronald Reagan wasn’t instantly apparent to everybody. He had flaws, both real and imagined, as will every other candidate in the real world. As did George Washington. As did Abraham Lincoln.

  6. Mark Evans says:

    The pro-Perry hoopla has cooled and the polls are tightening. It’s definitely a Romney-Perry battle. I have a feeling that even if Christie would come in later, he would prove to be a disappointment. He’s kind of refreshing in small doses, but do we really want him leading the free world?

    Perry will continue to hurt himself and Mitt will continue to run smoothly, if not necessarily spectacularly. I feel cautiously very optimistic right now.

  7. Steve Bigelow says:

    I judge a man by how well he exemplifies the teachings of Christ in his actions, not his words or professed beliefs.

    God may or may not judge a man by his “works” but I am not God nor do I profess that I can stand in the place of God, when it comes to judging a man. Many may draw close to Christ in their words or professed religious beliefs but are not even close in their actions or works.

    The best way to judge future behavior is to look at past behavior. Mitt Romney exemplifies the commonly held morals and ethics that Christ taught, in his actions as well as his words.

    He is also unparalleled among other candidates at building incredibly successful companies and projects in our American free enterprise system. Without bringing our country back from economic disaster, we will not have the ability to provide the freedoms and opportunities that America has always been known for in the past. If America declines further, who will dominate? What practical hope will we Christians have for spreading the “Word”?

    No man is perfect. But among the republican candidates, Mitt Romney is the clear choice. A combination of:
    Conservative morals, ethics held by all Christians regardless of their religious affiliations
    Proven leadership ability
    Charisma & presidential poise

    The rest of the candidates are all good people but we need more than just that!

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