What if you threw a big mock election and nobody bothered to campaign?
If it's Florida, that election still could be a big deal.
On Sept. 24 in Orlando, 3,500 ardent Republican activists in this must-win state cast votes for their preferred presidential nominee. The three times the Florida GOP has held such straw polls, the winner went on to win Florida's primary and the presidential nomination — Ronald Reagan in 1979, George H.W. Bush in 1987 and Bob Dole in 1995.
This year, though, the so-called Presidency 5 straw poll has most of the presidential campaigns skittish, confused or decidedly unenthusiastic. Only Herman Cain, Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul have committed to participate in the mock election, which essentially means showing up that Saturday afternoon and giving a speech.
"I don't see any path to the White House that doesn't include victory in Florida, and for Republicans that starts when you have 3,500 of the most active Republicans in the state coming to see you and hear you to understand if you're the best candidate to defeat Barack Obama," said Brian Hughes, communications director for the Republican Party of Florida.
Whether or not they show up at the Orange County Convention Center the day of the straw poll, all major candidates are likely to be on the ballot. What's more, delegates will sit in the audience as the candidates hold a nationally televised Fox News debate Sept. 22 at the convention center. And many are expected to attend a regional Conservative Political Action Committee conference at the same location Sept. 23, where the major candidates will speak.
"All the candidates that are participating in the debate are going to get an opportunity to communicate to the delegates, and I would expect the delegates will have their messages in mind when they vote at P5," Duval County GOP chairman Lenny Curry said.
Jamie Miller, a former executive director of the party, said Presidency 5 could recast expectations for the field.
"If you had a Rick Santorum or a Jon Huntsman come in third, that would make a big splash, whereas if (Mitt) Romney comes in fifth that would hurt a lot," Miller said.
In a campaign cycle where the GOP field is trying to marshal resources, though, Florida's mock election has most of the top-tier candidates steering clear. Romney and Michele Bachmann already have announced they won't participate, while Texas Gov. Rick Perry hasn't decided.
"I would love to be in P5 and I would hope people vote for me in P5, but for us to be able to meaningfully put that time and resources in, it just didn't seem we were going to be able to do it in a way that's going to be successful," said Rep. Bachmann, noting that she will be doing multiple debates and campaign stops across the country before Presidency 5. "To be able to pull off a straw poll I physically wouldn't be able to be here enough time to make it happen. But Florida is very important. We are not dismissing Florida in any way."
Bachmann, though, appears to be incorrectly equating Florida's straw poll to the widely watched Ames Straw Poll that she won in Iowa earlier this month. The Ames contest entails spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy tickets for supporters, bus them to Ames and shower them with food and music.
Not so in Florida.
Presidential campaigns spent to court delegates at Presidency 1, 2 and 3 (Presidency 4 in 2007 included a debate but no straw poll). This year, though, delegates chosen at the county level will pay their own registration fees and book their own hotels. And there has been no sign of heavy organizing by the campaigns.
The state GOP, however, is eager to raise money and is offering an opportunity to target delegates. Candidates can buy the list of delegates for $7,500 if they commit to holding a reception for delegates and speak to the delegates before the straw poll. Without those commitments, the list goes for $25,000.
At least one campaign has purchased the list, but the party would not reveal names.
"Thirty-five hundred of the party's best and brightest are going to be casting ballots — everybody from statewide elected officials to local elected officials to (local party leaders) to grassroots activists," Hughes said. "These are the people that any organization who wants to win a Republican primary in the state of Florida needs to convince."
It's not cheap for Florida Republicans to participate. Between the $175 registration fee, hotel rooms, travel and meals, the three-day event could cost at least $600. That may explain why some counties have struggled to fill their allotment of delegates, though Hughes said the delegates are representative of Florida.
In Hillsborough County, GOP chairwoman Deborah Cox-Roush said more than 450 people sought 220 delegate slots.
"Our people are very excited," she said. "They're ready to get started and they're looking at this as the kickoff for 2012."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.