It's not the win that counts, it's the spin. And, by that measure alone, Mitt Romney should be smiling this morning, because the Washington media establishment has decreed that his first-place finish in the Iowa Republican straw poll is an awesome achievement. The Washington Post trumpets it as "a convincing victory." The Politico website trumpets it as...yes..."a convincing victory."
Apparently, this is what passes for "convincing" these days:
1. Competing last night against a motley collection of second and third-tier candidates, none of whom had any money, Romney won 31.5 percent of the voters who showed up for the event. Put another way, Romney spent at least $2 million on the straw poll (that's the unofficial estimate, and it's probably low), whereas none of his rivals could afford to hire even a single bus to haul their followers to the event...and 68.5 percent of the attendees still voted against him.
2. Romney's bid to emerge as the clear favorite of "base voters" (the social and religious conservatives, who are numerous in Iowa) failed conspicuously. He received fewer votes (4516) than Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback, the two rivals who are also competing heavily for the base voters (they received a combined 4779). This suggests that the race for the base is still wide open, and that Romney's long track record of flip flops remains a sticking point for many conservatives.
3. Romney's aforementioned vote total (4516) is glaringly less than George W. Bush's first-place victory total at the 1999 straw poll (7418). In fact, Romney got fewer votes than even the second-place finisher in 1999, the self-funding millionaire Steve Forbes (4921). The reason for Romney's deficit? Horrendous turnout. Only 14,302 Iowa Republicans bothered to show up yesterday; that's two percent of all registered Republicans statewide. In 1999, the straw poll drew 23,685 attendees. It's possible that the absence of Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and the ever-teasing Fred Thompson helped to depress the turnout, but Giuliani and McCain skipped the event in part because they were not likely to score well with the base voters anyway. All told, the poor straw poll turnout was yet another symptom of the national GOP malaise, the conservative electorate's general lack of enthusiasm about its '08 choices.
4. Regarding Romney's money: If we accept the very conservative estimate that he spent $2 million on the straw poll (his aides won't say how much he spent, but let us remember that he ponied up $2 million just on Iowa TV ads - and that doesn't include the buses he hired, the bands he hired to play music, etc.), this translates into $443 for each vote he received. Romney's real figure is probably much higher. By contrast, Mike Huckabee's campaign reportedly spent $150,000 on the straw poll, and never hired a single bus; Huckabee therefore spent $57 on each vote he received.
All these caveats notwithstanding, "Romney wins" will be the shorthand in the days ahead, and he has the money and organization to excel at this game of smoke and mirrors. The Iowa straw poll has been a crock in the past - the '95 event was a triumph for Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, who was later clobbered in the Iowa caucuses - but it will be up to Giuliani, in particular, to outflank Romney in the big states and thus demonstrate that Romney's "convincing" summer victory was truly ephemeral.