Guy Benson
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AMES, IOWA - We are live at the Ames Straw Poll on the campus of Iowa State University.  Today marks the first major electoral contest of the 2012 presidential cycle, as six GOP candidates will vie for an early burst of publicity and momentum heading into next year.  On the ballot today: Rep. Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain,  Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (who didn't register enough support to participate in Thursday's debate), Rep. Ron Paul, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and Sen. Rick Santorum.   How do the mechanics of the straw poll operate?  The Fix's Aaron Blake has a useful roadmap:


Candidates reserve space at the gathering – with prime locations costing more – where they can make their case to the voters, and pay for people to be bused to Ames in order to vote for them (or someone else; the voter doesn’t have to officially pledge their support to the candidate that paid their way).  In the 2011 straw poll, Texas Rep. Ron Paul (R) has the most prized piece of real estate — right outside the convention center where the vote will take place. He paid $31,000 for it.

The candidates also each get to address the crowd.  Voters cast one ballot for their preferred candidate, and all the ballots are totaled like in a regular primary. Unlike some other straw polls, though, only residents of Iowa are allowed to participate.


Historically, the winner of this event is not necessarily predictive of the eventual party nominee, but it often provides an approximate preview of the Iowa caucuses, which are slated for February (for now):
 

Ames has a pretty good predictive track record. Since the event began in 1979, the candidate winning the Iowa caucus has placed first or second in the straw poll every time. Two successes in particular stand out. In 1979, George H.W. Bush won Ames despite polling at just 1 percent in a Des Moines Register survey — he went on to win the Iowa caucus. And in 2007 Mike Huckabee, in the low single digits in both state and national polls, finished second in the straw poll, the first tangible indicator of his upside in Iowa.


Follow the link above for a few notable examples of infamous Ames flops.  So what's the buzz this year?  Approximately 10-15,000 Iowans are expected to cast ballots today, a figure that represents roughly ten percent of the overall Republican turnout in the 2008 Iowa caucuses (turnout was much higher on the Democratic side that year). Most MSM reports have focused on the feud that boiled over during the debate between Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann; both have poured significant resources into the straw poll, and both are relative "hometown" favorites. 


The conventional wisdom is that Bachmann's strong grassroots support will propel to her to a first-place finish.  That's a very real possibility, but don't be surprised by a Ron Paul victory.  His supporters are out in full force here, and he has an unparalleled history of dominating straw polls.  As for Pawlenty, he has much at stake.  I heard an unconfirmed rumor this morning that his campaign has invested something in the ballpark of $1.5 million in the straw poll.  T-Paw has spent nearly every waking moment in the Hawkeye State in recent weeks, trying to shore up support in advance of what could be a make-or-break weekend.  If he doesn't manage to finish in the upper half (first or second, really) of competitors today, he may never recover.


A few extra storylines to bear in mind: Rick Santorum has also spent quite a lot of time in Iowa and is hoping that his strong social conservative credentials will pay dividends among the thousands of evangelicals who will turn out.  Unofficial Rick Perry volunteers (decked out in Longhorn burnt orange and Aggie maroon) have fanned out across the straw poll grounds, passing out stickers and urging voters to write-in the Texas Governor.  Mitt Romney -- Thursday's tenuous victor -- Jon Huntsman, and Newt Gingrich are not on the ballot*, and have not made a play at Ames.  **Correction: All nine GOP candidates are on the ballot, but the Romney/Huntsman/Gingrich campaigns have not actively participated in the straw poll.**


Stay tuned for a full schedule of today's festivities, as well as an embedded video widget -- which will allow you to watch the candidates' speeches live here on Townhall.  Results will not be announced until after 6pm ET.

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Guy Benson

Guy Benson is Townhall.com's Senior Political Editor. Follow him on Twitter @guypbenson.

Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography