White House hopefuls descended on Iowa this week for the official kickoff of the Republican primary campaign this weekend. Business Insider Politix talked to veteran GOP consultant Mike Murphy about Saturday’s Ames Straw Poll and the state of the 2012 presidential field. Murphy was senior strategist for John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2000, and has also advised Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, among others. He now writes a column for Time magazine and is a frequent guest on NBC’s “Meet The Press.” Here’s some of what he had to say:
What is the significance of the Ames Straw Poll? How indicative is it of the Iowa caucuses and/or the GOP primary race?
Murphy: The straw poll is an incredible thing that the Republican Party in Iowa started before the 1980 election as sort of a preview to the Iowa caucuses, except that candidates have to pay. It is one of the great money-making capers of all time, and a great fundraising tool for the Iowa Republican Party. Now it’s grown into this huge spectacle, but it’s a little anti-climatic — you know, who can drag a bunch of people to a field house on a hot summer day.
It’s not indicative of the Republican primaries as a whole, but it can be indicative of the Iowa caucus. The fact that it’s a caucus and not a primary means that we are dealing with a smaller group of hardcore conservative voters. Only about 120,000 Iowa Republicans vote in the caucuses, and about 10% of those voters are in Ames. So it’s about drilling into the core of conservative voters. It many be a useful organizational test but it’s not always a strong indicator of how a candidate will do in the primaries.
What does it mean that frontrunner, Mitt Romney, isn’t participating in the straw poll?
Murphy: It’s bad for Iowa. The value of the straw poll is how many people compete there, but a lot of it has to do with how much money you spend getting people out there. A lot of candidates have decided that it’s kind of like fighting a land war in Asia — Mitt Romney proved he could win the straw poll by spending a lot of money. I think that Romney, [Jon] Huntsman, and [Rick] Perry made the right choice.
So what are the stakes of the straw poll?
Murphy: I think the big contest will be between Bachmann, who we already know is the frontrunner in Iowa, Pawlenty, who has the organizational structure there but has yet to get a lot of support, and Ron Paul, who has his own organizational support there. These three are battling it out for the top two spots. Pawlenty is in trouble if he can’t get one of the top two spots — it will probably hurt his already weakened fundraising and may eventually kill his campaign. If Mitt Romney were going to Ames, Pawlenty would have had another Republican challenger to beat. But now it is just him.
But if he does manage to do well, expectations are already low — the Washington Post helped out with that today. So if he does well, he may be able to revive fundraising and bring back enthusiasm for his campaign.
So I think the stakes are highest for Pawlenty.
It’s also a test for Bachmann, who has based a lot of her campaign around Ames. She has put up Ames ads and has Ames-friendly message, so people expect to see her finishing in a pretty good position. It will really be a test for her support in Iowa.
What do you think about Perry’s decision to announce his candidacy in South Carolina at the same time as the straw poll? Do you think it’s smart, or will it hurt him in the primaries?
Murphy: He is making a shrewd tactical move by announcing on the same day as the Iowa straw poll. The question is will he engage in the Iowa caucuses, and it would be a mistake for him not to. It’s easy to tease the nomination because there are no expectations — his campaign will peak on the day he announces and the question is can he maintain that momentum to win the nomination, or will he fizzle. We don’t know yet.
I think he is a strong candidate for the nomination but a weak candidate in the general election. I don’t think he has a good chance against Obama. The strongest general election candidates are Romney, Huntsman, and Pawlenty — not necessarily in that order — but it remains to be seen whether Huntsman and Pawlenty can make it through the primaries.
How important is the evangelical vote?
Murphy: I think it is overrated. It is a big factor in Iowa, but is much less of one in New Hampshire. It’s a factor in South Carolina, not a factor in Nevada, and a only a little bit of a factor in Florida. It’s definitely important in Ames, but I think it tends to be an overrated factor in the primaries.
Perry and Bachmann both have a lot of support with this group. No Republican candidate can win with only evangelicals, but if your candidate can reach out to that group and then also get the support of other Republicans, then that can really help.
Often the pure evangelical candidate isn’t acceptable to other Republican voters — I think that might be the problem with Michele Bachmann. The question is will Perry go beyond that group and get the support of others in the party.
Murphy will appear on this Sunday’s Meet The Press roundtable, which will be broadcast live from the main stage at the Straw Poll.