We won’t elect a new U.S. president until November 2016, and votes for the Republican and Democratic nominations are still months away. But Jim Geraghty suggests at National Review Online that a contest less than three months down the road could prove critical to at least one GOP contender.

For Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, a mediocre showing in the August 8 Iowa Straw Poll would be a troubling rattle in the engine right at the moment the car needs to accelerate.

The straw poll doesn’t assign any delegates, and a lot of past straw-poll winners have flopped in the subsequent Iowa GOP caucuses. But the heavily conservative straw-poll crowd — the kind that preferred Michele Bachmann four years ago — should be a target-rich environment for an outspoken, pugnacious conservative like Cruz.

At the straw poll, “there’s a natural advantage for someone like Cruz,” says Craig Robinson, the former political director of the Iowa Republican party. “He appeals to that conservative activist [for whom] it’s easier to take a day out of their schedule and go, compared to a general Republican . . . ”

The straw poll will be a key measuring stick for Cruz, a test of whether he really has the appeal he’s aiming to achieve, according to Matt Strawn, who served as Iowa GOP chair from 2009 to 2012.

“As a candidate who’s trying to unite the clans, so to speak, of the ideological Right here, I would suggest there’s no better place to start that than in Boone on August 8,” says Strawn. “It would be the first test for him to prove that he is making inroads with those key activists. That’s what’s great about the straw poll. If they’re willing to drive to the middle of a cornfield in the middle of August, you know that’s somebody you can count on to stand up for you on a snowy February night.”

Yet, for now, the Texas senator’s camp won’t even confirm they’ll be competing in the straw poll. When asked if Cruz would participate, Brian Phillips, a senior adviser to the candidate’s PAC, says in a statement, “we don’t have anything to share regarding the straw poll at this point.”