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.