Florida Straw Poll Results Focus Less On Cain (Winner) Than Perry (Loser)

Herman Cain speaks prior to Florida's straw poll at the Orange County Convention Center on Saturday in Orlando.  Cain was a clear winner in the non-binding poll. i i

Herman Cain speaks prior to Florida's straw poll at the Orange County Convention Center on Saturday in Orlando. Cain was a clear winner in the non-binding poll. Mark Wilson/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Herman Cain speaks prior to Florida's straw poll at the Orange County Convention Center on Saturday in Orlando.  Cain was a clear winner in the non-binding poll.

Herman Cain speaks prior to Florida's straw poll at the Orange County Convention Center on Saturday in Orlando. Cain was a clear winner in the non-binding poll.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The big news of the weekend was the improbable victory in the Florida GOP Straw Poll (dubbed "Presidency 5") by former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain. The subsequent coverage has focused less on Cain's chances for winning his party's presidential nomination — thought of as anywhere between none and none — and the disappointing second-place finish of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who had expended a lot of time and effort into the non-binding event.

And it once again led to more questions about the validity of such straw polls.

A long time ago — way, way back in August 2011 — there was the Iowa Straw Poll, held in Ames. Michele Bachmann finished first, with 28.6 percent. That was big news. Even bigger news was the third-place finish for another Minnesotan, Tim Pawlenty, who received 13.6% but who was basing most of his campaign on doing well in Iowa; he cited his disappointing showing in dropping out of the race the next day.

Ron Paul, the Texas congressman whose 2008 bid for president was highlighted by numerous straw poll victories, finished a close second to Bachmann, with 27.7%. But Paul got nary a mention; after all, he's supposed to do well in straw polls.

For the record, Mitt Romney, who essentially ignored the straw poll, finished a distant seventh.

Since her victory in Ames on Aug. 13, we haven't heard much from Bachmann. She has been eclipsed by the arrival of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who also appeals to Bachmann's Tea Party constituency and who is said by most media accounts to be in a one-on-one battle for the nomination with Romney, who until Perry's entry into the race was deigned the previous "frontrunner".

And lest we forget, Romney won the 2007 Iowa straw poll. Of course, Mike Huckabee, not Romney, went on to win the 2008 Iowa caucuses, and John McCain — who ignored the straw poll and finished an unsurprising 10th in that event — went on to win the nomination.

So much for the importance of the Iowa straw poll.

On the other hand, Saturday's straw poll in Orlando, Fla., was supposed to be much more instructive. Unlike the situation in Ames, in which participants basically had to pay-to-play, Florida was seen as more representative of the folks who were going to turn out in next year's primary. Blaise Ingolglia, the co-chair of the organization putting on the "Presidency 5" event, said this, according to NBC's "First Read":

Iowa is a test of the organizational strength. Iowa basically is a paid straw poll. ... This is actually more of a true representation of how the voters are going to vote in Florida.

Ingolglia wasn't alone. Alex Patton, a Florida GOP consultant and pollster, said the events in the Sunshine State last week — the Thursday debate and the Saturday straw poll — would "separate out the wheat from the chaff."

And, as its boosters liked to point out, everyone who has won the straw poll here in the past — Ronald Reagan (1979), George H.W. Bush (1987) and Bob Dole (1995) — all went on to win the nomination. Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), quoted in the Tampa Tribune, insisted "that this year's straw poll winner will be the next president."

And so, who won Saturday's straw poll? Herman Cain.

(Results: Cain 37%, Perry 15%, Romney 14%, Rick Santorum 11%, Paul 10%, Newt Gingrich 8%, Jon Huntsman 2%, Bachmann less than 2%.)

Does this mean Cain is a serious candidate for the nomination? No one has yet to say that. But little of the coverage was about him. Instead, the results were a "startling embarrassment" for Perry, according to Paul West of the Los Angeles Times. A "particular blow" to Perry, wrote the New York Times' Michael Shear.

There was, with few exceptions, more focus on the loser(s) than on the winner. And maybe that's what straw polls tell us. Not that Cain, who is languishing well back in the pack and exhibits little sign of a campaign organization, is going to be the GOP nominee. True, he has been winning over crowds with his passion and penchant for straight talk. But he has also proved he can stick his foot in his mouth as well as anyone, as when he suggested he would not appoint Muslims to his Cabinet. Never forget the tried and true maxim that first-time candidates are known for tripping over their own words.

If nothing else, Cain's straw poll win will give him some new attention in the next few days.

What we've been seeing from straw polls, it seems, is that it is less interesting to report on who won and more common to dissect as to why some lost. And that seems to be the message coming out of Orlando. Some are now asking aloud whether Perry, who expended a lot of effort in the straw vote and who has now had a series of relatively weak and defensive performances in the past three debates, is ready for prime time.

He is already under assault from his rivals for saying, during the debate, "I don't think you have a heart" if you oppose his efforts in Texas that let children of illegal immigrants pay in-state tuition at public colleges. He is also opposed to having a fence along the entire Texas-Mexico border, calling it "idiocy." In a party that is known for its tough-on-immigration philosophy, Perry's position on this issue could be more damaging to his chances than, say, his comments on Social Security ("Ponzi scheme"). Such views on immigration might make complete sense in Hispanic-heavy Texas, but not when you're running in Iowa, South Carolina or elsewhere. To burst on the scene as an instant frontrunner, and then seemingly stumble in the debates, as Perry has, is pretty remarkable. "I see Rick Perry and I think Fred Thompson," said one GOP operative, thinking back to another would-be conservative savior whose 2008 presidential bid turned out to be a bust.

There is still enough time and — God knows — plenty of debates ahead before the primaries and caucuses actually begin. So it may be too soon to write Perry off. Herman Cain, nice guy and all, may be a different matter.

From the Political Junkie archives: Click here to read, "Ron Paul and Presidential Straw Polls," Feb. 15, 2011.

Welcome Back McCotter, to Congress. Another presidential longshot, Rep. Thad McCotter (R-Mich.), ended his candidacy Sept. 22 and threw his support to Romney. McCotter said his hopes never gained traction because of his exclusion from the debates. He added he will seek re-election to his House seat that he first won in 2002.

Now to the mailbag:

Q: In this week's podcast you talked about Charles Percy being a Republican "rising star" in the late 1960s. Percy, as you mentioned, was quite liberal. Given that, how serious of a presidential candidate could he have been? — M.J. Codd, Amherst, Mass.

A: They were already talking about Percy as presidential material in 1964, during his challenge to Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner (D). Goldwater conservatives were never especially wild about him — he headed up the 1960 GOP Platform Committee, which they saw as too liberal, and was himself involved in seemingly liberal causes — but he was young, attractive, and eager to unite the party. He probably would have defeated Kerner had not Barry Goldwater been such a drag on the Republican ticket that year. But unlike some in the party, he never distanced himself from Goldwater and grudgingly won conservative respect that year. Percy lost by 180,000 votes (52-48%) while President Lyndon Johnson trounced Goldwater in the state by nearly 900,000.

Illinois' Charles Percy was a Republican rising star following his 1966 election to the Senate.

Illinois' Charles Percy was a Republican rising star following his 1966 election to the Senate. Ken Rudin collection hide caption

itoggle caption Ken Rudin collection

But after he knocked off liberal Sen. Paul Douglas in 1966 by a wide margin (55-44%) — the only incumbent senator to go down to defeat that fall — the talk of Percy for higher office was set in motion.

While he talked about running as Illinois' "favorite son" at the 1968 convention, most of the conversation was about the possibility of his being Richard Nixon's running mate — a scenario that Nixon himself even discussed. But when Nixon picked Spiro Agnew as his number two, it basically ended Percy's White House hopes. The Nixon-Agnew team lasted until Agnew's resignation, in 1973, on corruption charges, replaced by House Minority Leader Gerald Ford. When Nixon himself quit the following year, Ford became president — and faced Ronald Reagan for the nomination in 1976. By then it had become clear that the party was moving well to the right, and so any thought of Percy as its standard bearer had ended once and for all.

Q: We all know that Sarah Palin was the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. My question: was Hubert Humphrey, in 1968, the last major party presidential nominee that had at one point in his political career been a mayor? — James McKinstra, Hibbing, Minn.

Humphrey began his political career with his election as mayor of Minneapolis in 1945.

Humphrey began his political career with his election as mayor of Minneapolis in 1945. Ken Rudin collection hide caption

itoggle caption Ken Rudin collection

A: Yes, Humphrey was the last. He was elected mayor of Minneapolis on his second try in 1945 and re-elected in '47. As mayor and a candidate for the Senate, he gave a fiery speech on behalf of civil rights at the 1948 Democratic convention. As it is, only three presidents ever served as mayor: Andrew Johnson (Greeneville, Tenn.), Grover Cleveland (Buffalo, N.Y.) and Calvin Coolidge (Northampton, Mass.).

Q: Who's going to be the Republican nominee for president? — Jane Reynolds, Dallas, Texas

A: I'm going with Mitt Romney, based mostly on what I've seen thus far in the debates. But for the record, I was asked in a 2007 Political Junkie column who my picks were for 2008 and I said Romney (R) and Hillary Clinton (D). The nominees, to the best of my recollection, ultimately were John McCain and Barack Obama.

Candidates 2012. Tommy Thompson, a former four-term governor of Wisconsin who left Madison to become President Bush's Secretary of Health and Human Services and who was, briefly, a candidate for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, declares his bid for the Senate seat being vacated by Herb Kohl (D) ... Linda McMahon, the GOP Senate nominee in Connecticut in 2010, is running again. A former wrestling executive who drop-kicked $50 million of her own money in last year's race only to lose to Richard Blumenthal (D) by 12 points, is seeking the seat of the retiring Joe Lieberman (I). But first she must get by a potential Republican primary battle with former Rep. Chris Shays ... Ovide Lamontagne, who came close to winning the GOP nomination for the Senate in New Hampshire in 2010, is running for governor. The news came not long after incumbent John Lynch (D) announced his retirement after four two-year terms. Lamontagne narrowly lost last year's Senate nomination to Kelly Ayotte, who went on to win the seat vacated by Judd Gregg (R). Lamontagne ran for governor once before, upsetting the party favorite in the 1996 primary (then-Rep. Bill Zeliff) but losing in November by a wide margin to Democrat Jeanne Shaheen.

We're Number Two. C-SPAN has started this delightful series of profiles of presidential candidates who, well, didn't win. It's called "The Contenders." Each Friday evening at 8 pm ET, for 14 weeks, C-SPAN will profile 14 candidates for the White House, offering interviews and historical perspectives. Already shown: Henry Clay, James Blaine and William Jennings Bryan. Still to come: Eugene Debs (9/30), Charles Evans Hughes (10/7), Al Smith (10/14), Wendell Willkie (10/21), Thomas Dewey (10/28), Adlai Stevenson (11/4), Barry Goldwater (11/11), Hubert Humphrey (11/18), George Wallace (11/25), George McGovern (12/2), and Ross Perot (12/9). Click here for more details.

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Political Juanky. With a name like that, how could I resist? Juan Carlos "Juanky" Robaina is a Republican who sought a seat in the Florida state house of representatives in 2010 (District 117, in the Miami area) at the age of 24. Given the name of this column and knowing our obsession for campaign buttons, he sent me one of his.

Political Updates. I will post periodic political updates during the week on Twitter. You can follow me at @kenrudin.

How's Bayou? A big thanks to the wonderful folks at member station WRKF in Baton Rouge for a successful (and fun) visit last week.

Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, the Political Junkie segment appears on Talk of the Nation (NPR's call-in program), hosted by Neal Conan with me adding color commentary, where you can, sometimes, hear interesting conversation, useless trivia questions, and sparkling jokes. Last week's segment focused on Pennsylvania's proposed change in Electoral College vote allocation and featured pollster Terry Madonna. You can hear the segment here:

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And Don't Forget ScuttleButton. ScuttleButton, America's favorite waste-of-time button puzzle, can be found in this spot every Wednesday. A randomly-selected winner will be announced each week during the Political Junkie segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation. It's not too late to enter last week's contest. Not only is there incredible joy in deciphering the answer, but the winner gets a TOTN t-shirt!

Podcast. There is also a new episode of our weekly podcast, "It's All Politics," every Thursday. It's hosted by my partner-in-crime, Ron Elving, and me. Latest episode: Setting up the latest GOP debate and presidential straw poll that took place in Orlando. You can listen to it below.

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Eleanor Mondale. The vivacious daughter of former Vice President Walter Mondale, Eleanor Mondale died on Sept. 17 of brain cancer at the age of 51. She had been an entertainment reporter and a radio show host, but mostly she was known in the gossip pages for being linked to one celebrity or another. Kim Kokich, an old friend and former NPR staffer who is currently a program adviser in the Master of Science in Organization Development program at American University in DC, penned these memories of her for Minnesota Public Radio's web site.

ON THE CALENDAR:

Oct. 4 — Special West Virginia gubernatorial election: acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) vs. businessman Bill Maloney (R). Tomblin acceded to the governorship when the incumbent, Joe Manchin (D), was elected in 2010 to the Senate seat long held by Robert Byrd (D), who died. This is to fill the final year of Manchin's term.

Oct. 11 — GOP presidential debate at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., 8 pm ET (hosted by Washington Post/Bloomberg).

Oct. 18 — GOP presidential debate in Las Vegas (CNN).

Mailing list. To receive a weekly email alert about the new column and ScuttleButton puzzle, contact me at politicaljunkie@npr.org.

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Voters' perception of JFK improved following his debates with Nixon in 1960.

Voters' perception of JFK improved following his debates with Nixon in 1960. Ken Rudin collection hide caption

itoggle caption Ken Rudin collection

This day in campaign history: For the first time ever, the two major party presidential nominees debate on television. Vice President Richard Nixon (R) and Sen. John Kennedy (D-Mass.) square off in a Chicago studio that is viewed by some 74 million people. The debate, limited to domestic issues, is moderated by Howard K. Smith of CBS, with questions also coming from Robert Fleming of ABC, Stuart Novins of CBS, Charles Warren of Mutual and Sandy Vanocur of NBC (Sept. 26, 1960).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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