AMES, Iowa -- It's not often that a silver medal is more important than the gold. But that's what happened here Saturday night, when former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee came in second in the Republican straw poll, just a couple thousand votes behind Mitt Romney.
Here's why: To get a vote in the Iowa straw poll, an Iowa resident has to first get to Ames, then get ahold of a $35 ticket, and then hand that ticket to a poll worker. It is not really a democratic process. It's more of a contest of campaign organization. Many of the Republican campaigns spent thousands and thousands of dollars to hire buses, buy tickets and cajole their supporters to truck to Ames in the ridiculous heat. As I have written previously, the Republican straw poll is at its core a bus-laden bribe festival.
So why does it matter that Huckabee came in second? Romney was always a lock for first. He has spent millions of dollars in Iowa on campaign organization and radio and television ads. He had more than 100 buses ferrying voters to the poll, and dozens of paid workers recruiting voters. To top it off, the other top-tier candidates, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and the wounded John McCain, decided not to compete in Ames. In the end, Romney got 4,516 votes, or 31.5 percent of the votes cast.
So that left a race for second place. And this is where we have to look at the numbers. Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback hired 51 buses, spent $320,000 and bought more than 3,000 tickets, according to a Brownback operative, who asked not to be named. [Note: Marc Ambinder has a blind source putting the total Brownback cost at $600,000.] To top it off, Brownback had the only air-conditioned candidate tent, a rock climbing wall and the biggest inflatable children's slides at the straw poll. He garnered just 2,192 votes.
Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo bought about 2,400 tickets, and hired 20 buses, according to campaign staff. He has also been running constant ads on conservative talk radio in the state, in an effort to drum up straw poll voters. He got 1,961 votes.
So what about Huckabee? He had no buses. He has not run any ads in Iowa. His tent was the least impressive of the bunch. He spent between $125,000 and $150,000 on the event, according to his campaign manager. And he only bought 1,850 tickets. Yet in the end, he got 2,587 votes. That means about 700 people either paid for their own ticket, had a ticket paid for by a third-party group or fooled another campaign into thinking they would vote for him. [Huckabee was supported, along with other candidates, by Fair Tax, an organization that wants to replace the federal income tax with a national sales tax.]
By any measure, this is a huge win for Huckabee, and a confirmation of his grass-roots support in Iowa. He still has a long way to go, and no one knows what will happen when Fred Thompson jumps in the race, but this silver medal could finally bring some real money into his tiny campaign war chest. Stay tuned.