Since Giuliani and McCain announced that they would not be participating in the Ames straw poll, most people have argued that the poll (to be held on Saturday) will have less of an impact than in previous elections. While this is seemingly so, it will still play a significant roll in the GOP race.
With what has happened to McCain in the last month, Giuliani is likely kicking himself for withdrawing from the poll. Had Giuliani stayed in and McCain still collapsed, Giuliani would have likely had a whole new constituency that would have flocked his way. At the time of his withdrawl, it seemed like the right choice to make; it looked as if Romney was running away with Iowa. While Romney is indeed pulling out a huge lead, had Giuliani stayed in he would have had a real chance to pull out a victory or, at the worst, pull out a close second. Close enough to give him a realistic chance in January (December now?). Instead, baring a complete collapse of the Romney campaign, he not only has a lock on the poll in Ames, but he likely has nearly the same hold on the actual caucus.
Ames means more for Romney than for almost anyone else (of course a few people may be out of the race come Sunday, so they may have something to say about that). In the extremely unlikely event that Romney comes in second, his campaign would be dead; game over. This is won’t happen though. While some argue that anything less than a 10 point win for Romney would be near devastating, I suspect Romney would be fine. If, however, someone comes within 5 points, Romney will have a very uncomfortable ride to the caucuses. A 6-13 point victory and Romney is sitting pretty, but in the same place he was before caucuses. Ames wouldn’t really affect him.
However, if Mitt can pull out a 14+ point victory, especially upwards of 20 points, the entire GOP race changes. The other three front runners, will of course, downplay it because they did not partipate. But it will be hard to argue with a 17 point victory. That type of victory would attract major media coverage and would likely have a greater impact on the national polls, drawing Romney closer to Giuliani and Thompson.
The most interesting story in Ames, however, has nothing to do with Romney, Giuliani, Thompson, or McCain. It has everything to do with whose candidacy will be alive on Monday. Tommy Thompson already said that he needs to finish in the top two in order to continue, so he is as good as gone. He is not finishing in the top two.
Both Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo will likely finish outside of the top four. This will likely be more detrimental to Tancredo, as he seems to have been working harder in Iowa. Tancredo will likely drop out by the end of the month with a 5th or worse finish. Hunter hasn’t seemed to put much stock here, I think he is in for ideological reasons and will stay through at least the first caucus/primary.
Ron Paul will not drop out, at least not because of Ames. He is one to watch for in the poll because he has an extremely loyal and dedicated following. His following is likely not large enough to crack the top four at Ames, although I wouldn’t be shocked if it happened. Paul will see it through at least mega-Tuesday in February.
The most interesting race in Ames is between Brownback and Huckabee. Both have substantial support and organization in Iowa and they have been targeting each other as of late which has increased the drama. It is likely that only one will survive the weekend. Romney will win and Giuliani will likely finish in the top 3. Either Sam or Mike will take the other spot in the top 3. The loser will finish fourth or worse. A fourth place finish may not be the knock out punch, but it will be painful. If one of them finishes fifth, he will drop out.
Regardless of how significant Ames may or may not be, it will certainly help shape the GOP race – if only to pare down the number of candidates in the debates. Romney has the most to lose with the least to gain. The “second-tier” candidates have tons to lose, but there is a lot to gain also. If the race is close with Huckabee or Brownback in a close second, you could see a fifth addition to the big four.
Predictions: 1. Romney (by 13) 2. Huckabee 3. Giuliani 4. Brownback (2-4 all very close) 5. Ron Paul