AMES, Iowa – Officially, it’s meaningless. No delegates were won or lost, but a straw poll of Iowa Republicans on Saturday threatened to shake up the nomination campaign as it enters the fall run-up to the caucus and primary voting in January.
The event appeared to confirm the status of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as a leader for his party’s nomination, gave former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee a leg up, and was likely to create pressure on two candidates to get out of the race – former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and Rep. Duncan Hunter, of California.
The political fallout magnified the results of an event that drew a surprisingly low turnout of the state’s Republicans.
Just 14,302 people cast votes at the straw poll – 2.5 percent of the state’s registered Republicans and 9,000 fewer than participated in the last straw poll in 1999.
Still, all but three of the campaigns spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to win bragging rights from the results that they can use to raise more money, or avoid the disappointment that will dry up contributions and force them out of the race. Four candidates dropped out within weeks of the 1999 straw poll.
Romney claimed a solid win with 31.5 percent of the vote.
It was stronger than his support statewide – which averages about 25 percent – but about what might be expected given the fact that he outspent rivals by a large margin and competed without his strongest rival, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
“He won a decent victory against a weak field,” said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines.
Huckabee got what he was looking for, finishing second and edging out his chief rival for the support of social conservatives, Sen. Sam Brownback, of Kansas.
Two candidates with niche messages finished fourth and fifth – Rep. Tom Tancredo, of Colorado, the choice of voters most upset with illegal immigration, and Rep. Ron Paul, of Texas, the choice of libertarian-minded Republicans.
For two others – Tommy Thompson and Hunter – their poor finish could spell trouble. Thompson finished sixth with 7.3 percent of the vote. Hunter finished ninth with 1.2 percent.
Three candidates who did not compete for votes at the event did not fare well with the small crowd. Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson finished seventh; Giuliani finished eighth and Sen. John McCain, of Arizona, finished tenth.