ORLANDO, FL -- When presidential hopeful Herman Cain addressed a roomful of Republicans in Brandon, FL on Tuesday, he knew he could only hope for a handful to vote for him in the state’s straw poll this weekend.
The reason why had little to do with his message or candidacy -- and more to do with the structure of the Florida Straw Poll. Unlike last summer’s highly watched Ames Straw Poll that is open to all Iowa voters, the ballots that will be counted in the Florida Straw Poll on Saturday will be cast from a selected group of 3,500 delegates from around the state.
It’s why, in Cain’s four campaign stops around the state this week, retail politicking might not have much payoff in the Sunshine State’s straw poll. Of the nearly 50 people who came out to hear the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, only a few were delegates who will be eligible to vote.
But it is that structure that has Florida Republicans officials touting their state’s poll as more than just a chance for candidates to gain or lose some momentum. If history holds true, the winner of Saturday’s contest will be the candidate who also wins the primary.
“Iowa is a test of the organizational strength. Iowa basically is a paid straw poll,” said Blaise Ingoglia, co-chair of Presidency 5, the organization responsible with putting on the straw poll. “This is actually more of a true representation of how the voters are going to vote in Florida.”
The three straw polls held before this in Florida have all picked the eventual primary winner. Ronald Reagan was the first winner in 1979, followed by George H.W. Bush in 1987 and then Bob Dole in 1995. (No straw polls were held in 2000 or 2007 -- largely due to the candidates not wanting to participate in the poll that would require them to shift time and resources to the large and expensive state of Florida.)
This year, with today's Faith and Freedom Coalition Rally, tonight's FOX-Google debate, and Friday's Florida CPAC all taking place before the delegates cast their ballots, it will at least seem like Republicans are campaigning hard to win voters in the straw poll. Romney and Bachmann have both spent time campaigning in the state recently. And though he knew he could not win the vote of everyone he spoke to, Cain focused his efforts this week on speaking at gatherings of local Florida Republican organizations, knowing delegates were likely in the crowd.
But for Saturday's straw poll, no candidate has put on the line what Pawlenty or Bachmann did in Ames, and many have downplayed the significance of Saturday's event. Shortly after Bachmann's win in Ames, campaign spokeswoman Alice Stewart said they would not "dedicate the resources" to participate in Florida. Jon Huntsman, whose campaign headquarters are in Orlando and who originally said he would participate in the straw poll, has since called it "diminished."
Still, all the candidates names will be on the ballot, so it might be a bit unclear to voters exactly who is and is not participating. The reason why the Florida Straw Poll has been an accurate predictor of the eventual primary winner has a lot to do with the selection of the 3,500 delegates. They are some of the most passionate Republicans in the state, chosen from each of the 67 counties. To become a delegate you must have applied earlier in the year, been chosen by a lottery, and pay $175 –- which accounts for not just the opportunity to vote, but the ability to attend an array of Republican events that began today.
That’s why candidates aren’t blazing through the state this week promising free bus rides to the polls and country music concerts like some did in Iowa.
“One of the really good things is that because of delegates, you get a really broad brush of the electorate,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of Southern Florida.
So why did some Floridians pay to spend three days listening to Republican candidates?
“This is a moment of serving your country and trying to pick the next president,” said Stanley Gloster, a delegate selected from Hillsborough County, where Tampa is located. “Florida will dictate who is going to be the next president.”