Wow: Romney to skip Iowa straw poll; Update: Iowa GOP chief not pleased

I get why he’s doing it, but it’s a huge, huge risk.

Mr. Romney’s campaign said he would still compete in Iowa’s caucuses, now slated for February, 2012. But the former Massachusetts governor’s absence from the Aug. 13 straw poll will likely diminish his chances, some Iowa officials say, while raising the odds that whoever wins the poll will be best positioned to claim the status as Mr. Romney’s top rival for the nomination…

According to 2008 election-day surveys, 60% of Iowa caucus-goers called themselves evangelical or born-again Christians. In the New Hampshire primary, the figure was 23%. In the general election that year, about a quarter of voters in both parties were evangelical Christians.

Moreover, the straw poll presents a risk to Mr. Romney: Expectations that he win likely would be high, due to his broad name recognition and status as the putative GOP front-runner. But a weak finish in the straw poll could diminish him…

Romney advisers insist he won’t skip Iowa entirely. He plans to participate in a debate just before the straw poll that has been sanctioned by the Republican National Committee. But by missing the straw poll, Mr. Romney may alienate some Iowans. “It definitely impacts your ability to compete in the caucuses,” said Doug Gross, the chairman of Mr. Romney’s 2008 campaign in Iowa. “Iowa Republicans take this very personally.”

He spent a boatload of money trying to win the straw poll three years ago, and succeeded — before going on to lose the caucuses to Huckabee. Can’t blame him for not wanting to make the same mistake twice, but given the perceived snub to Iowa voters, he’s all but writing off the state now. (So is Huntsman, who’d otherwise share Romney’s Iowa predicament of being a Mormon candidate facing an evangelical electorate.) His strategy is straightforward: Since he probably won’t win anyway, he’ll keep a light footprint there and then spin his eventual defeat as due to lack of effort. The risk is that, with Huntsman not competing there either, the “centrist” part of the field has now essentially been ceded to his chief rival, Tim Pawlenty. Romney’s counting on Palin, Bachmann, Cain, or Perry to catch fire and win the caucuses, which would cripple T-Paw ahead of New Hampshire by denying him the big victory he needs as a springboard. If it works out that way, Mitt’s golden — but if it doesn’t, and Pawlenty ends up winning by combining the centrist vote with grassroots conservatives looking for an “electable” alternative to Romney, then suddenly he’s a major threat to pull the upset in New Hampshire too, which would leave Mitt dead on arrival. It’s still probably a gamble worth taking just because, if Romney ran hard in Iowa and flamed out, the media would go nuts over it for weeks afterward, but they might go nuts over it anyway if he finishes embarrassingly poorly anyway. Which, considering how “personally” Iowans take snubs like this, might happen. He’s handing Pawlenty a prized opportunity.

Peter Hamby of CNN flags the fact that Romney promised the locals just two weeks ago, “I am fully committed to Iowa and the process.” Why the sudden change of heart? Is this a late-breaking strategic decision driven by the growing probability of Perry jumping into the race? Perry’s a natural fit for a state like Iowa, and as noted last night, the big religious gathering he’s organizing in Houston is scheduled for just one week before the straw poll. Maybe Mitt figures Perry will torpedo T-Paw on his behalf in Iowa and then the two of them will square off for the nomination in South Carolina, Florida and beyond. Exit question from Nate Silver: “Has the candidate who was leading the Iowa polls ever declined to participate in Ames?”

Update: That didn’t take long. Over/under on Romney’s finish in the caucuses: Fourth place.

Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn issued the statement below following Governor Romney’s announcement that he will not participate in the the Ames Straw Poll.

“I’ll leave it to the pundits and voters to assess the wisdom of skipping an event of tremendous importance to tens of thousands of Iowa Republicans and caucusgoers.”

“More than ever, Iowa Republicans are energized and motivated to utilize the Ames Straw Poll as a catalyst toward building a 99-county organization to deny President Obama a second term.”

“I’m encouraged that this grassroots energy, combined with the need for other Presidential campaigns to demonstrate their organizational strength and support, will lead to a very successful Ames Straw Poll in August.”

Update: Really good question from Twitter user analogkid2112 about something that had completely skipped my mind. If Romney was planning to write off Iowa, why on earth did he come out in favor of ethanol subsidies 10 days ago? He’s thrown away any political benefit he might have gotten from that pander and ended up with nothing but downside.