With his decision not to compete in the Ames Straw Poll on August 13, Romney continues his pattern of trying to learn from the campaign mistakes of 2008. Last time around, Romney spent over $1 million to win the Ames Straw poll only to lose the Iowa caucus to Mike Huckabee and the New Hampshire primary to John McCain, thereby effectively ending his bid for the Republican nomination. On the other hand, McCain skipped Ames and won the nomination. But Rudy Giuliani, who was also the Republican front-runner at this time last time around, skipped Ames and the Iowa caucus. We know how that turned out.
Romney’s decision opens the door for the emergence of a clear challenger to his position as the Republican’s leading candidate. Winning the Ames straw poll can provide an enormous boost to a campaign, bringing in free media and money, both of which are in short supply this year with such a crowded field. Tim Pawlenty probably has the most to either win or lose in Ames. If Pawlenty makes a poor showing, it could and probably would seriously impair his chances. On the other hand, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain have everything to win and nothing to lose, because of low expectations. Don’t count Rick Santorum out either. He has done well in straw polls so far, although it is doubtful he has the resources to compete in Ames.
If Romney has guessed right, his opponents will fairly equally divide the Ames Straw Poll vote with no clear winner and no one getting a real boost to his/her campaign. In his best case scenario, Ron Paul will pull off a narrow win. But–If Romney has guessed wrong, he will suddenly face a serious challenge to his cautious, but disciplined march towards the nomination. And his support is so thin, he can’t really afford a serious challenge. Indeed, Romney’s best chance of winning the nomination is the belief that he will win the nomination. Ames could destroy that belief in his inevitability.