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110814 Firsthand Experiences of the Iowa Straw Poll

 Firsthand Experiences of the Iowa Straw Poll

8/14/11
 
In the first major step of the 2012 presidential election, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann scored a major victory yesterday at the Republican Ames, Iowa Straw Poll with Texas Rep. Ron Paul claiming bragging rights from a strong second place finish. Meanwhile, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s poor showing forced him to drop out this morning while the other three contestants’ even worse performances rendered them effectively political dead men walking. Like Iowa Straw Polls of previous elections, this was a truly momentous event, and for me, it was all the more real because I was there.
 

A Day in Ames

After the long car ride through rural Middle America, I arrived at Iowa State University in Ames (population 60,000

or so) yesterday morning. Once I was off the freeway, I followed the trail of campaign signage lacing the shoulders of the roads leading to the University. Parking was congested but not too bad (I actually found a slot on campus), and upon arrival I made my way over to the center of activity.For those who have watched previous Ames contests on television, the environment was probably much as you would expect. One of the University’s major sports facilities, the Hilton Coliseum, was where the speeches and program took place with the actual voting booths split up between being inside and in an adjacent building. Besieging the Coliseum were the campaigns’ tent camps, and these fully lived up to their stereotypes. Most had stages for live entertainment and speeches, tables for eating, and registration stations for supporters to check in and give the campaign staffs some sense of their numerical strength. Two campaigns actually did have what had been in my mind the archetypal image of Ames: an inflatable bounce house adorned with a campaign sign for the little kids who had come with relatives. A third campaign had an inflatable slide. Meanwhile, around twenty conservative groups and other special interests had also rented out booths or tents to peddle their wares and philosophies. A series of media vans and buses completed the picture. All in all, the whole place truly was a physical manifestation of America’s marketplace of ideas.

I spent the first couple of hours walking around. Mike Huckabee (who rose to fame four years ago because of his second place showing in Ames) was playing guitar. Although not a candidate himself, he appeared to be cultivating as much nostalgia as he could (as his group of volunteers manning the HuckPAC tent evidenced). I toured the C-SPAN bus, which was handing out free copies of the constitution and other mementoes. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad was speaking at the AARP tent when I went by it. He spent the day in full glory, basking in his State Party’s rationale that it deserves to be not just the first but also second major contests in the

presidential race. (Of course, I cannot protest this with too much integrity given that I had bought my $30 ticket and driven for hours to see Iowa’s loudly-purported superior sense of civic life.) A man dressed in a rather convincing Abraham Lincoln imitation was taking pictures with people, and campaigns were operating little golf carts that butt through the crowds, shuttling elderly supporters from the parking lots to the campaign tents. Several candidates, meanwhile, were visibly speaking to or milling amongst their supporters.
 
Throughout the morning, the different campaigns’ buses had been rolling their voters onto campus from around the state, and I began trying to estimate the number of duly-T-shirted supporters in each campaign area. I must confess that I started to develop a rather skewed view: my feeling was that Paul’s camp was best populated, but I knew that this was partially blurred because Paul had purchased the most prominent area right by the Coliseum’s main entrance where a lot of non-supporters would naturally be walking through at any given time.
 
However, as the program began around 12:30 pm, my sense of Paul’s lead seemed reinforced. Over the course of the next three hours as each
participating candidate (and some sometimes dull non-candidate speakers) addressed the thousands gathered inside, it felt like Paul had command of the room. I think that he received the strongest applause and his bring-the-troops-home-now message garnered fairly energetic support from a plurality of the audience. The response to Pawlenty and Bachmann, however, both seemed softer. Meanwhile, the gaps between speeches were sometimes marked with small exoduses of people who, presumably having already voted, were ready to head home. When the speakers ended ahead of schedule around 3:15, I went back outside expecting a Paul win with Bachmann and Pawlenty vying for second.
 
However, with voting set to end at 4:00, the nervousness of the campaigns began to become apparent. Around 3:50, I saw that Bachmann and her husband Marcus had procured a golf cart, and Marcus was waving admission tickets over his head, apparently trying to give them away to anyone who would pledge to back his wife in the final minutes. Both Bachmann and Paul supporters smashed around them, and soon the cart had to speed away (by golf cart standards) with Bachmann staff running alongside to guard their candidate from possible assailants. Not far away, police officers were questioning a couple of people. One officer was oddly
holding an approximately six-foot pole bearing a U.S. flag. Perhaps it was the confiscated weapon of a would-be skirmish between two campaigns.
 
Back inside, the suspense began dragging on waiting for results to be announced. Most people had left, and almost everyone inside who was wearing a campaign T-shirt was a Paul supporter. Perhaps, I suspected, they were the only ones who thought they had something to celebrate. I sat back and watched the Coliseum floor where the various television networks were set up and either filming reports or interviewing VIP analysts or guests. The list of journalistic celebrities was rather long: among those walking to and fro were David Gregory, Chuck Todd, Bret Baier, Chris Wallace, Carl Cameron, Andrea Mitchell, and Charlie Cook.
 
Around 5:45, the State Party chairman took the stage. The moment of decision was at hand, and after giving some quick thank-yous and touting that the vote total had been just below 17,000 (a noteworthy boost from 2007’s 14,000), he announced that Bachmann was the winner and then quickly left the stage. A cheer from scattered Bachmann supporters broke out, but a much louder chorus of “Ron Paul! Ron Paul!” quickly eclipsed it. I was confused, mostly because I had been wrong but also because the chairman had broken from tradition. In the past, Party officials had announced vote totals one by one, tantalizingly moving from last place to first. It took me several seconds to realize the new format: results were flashing across the massive screen hanging from the Coliseum’s ceiling. Bachmann had indeed won, but just barely. She had edged out Paul 29%-28% (using percentages tabulated later since the screen itself only showed raw totals). Just as stunning was Pawlenty’s distant third place finish at 14%, instantly destroying a campaign that just a day before had been a contender (perhaps
even favored) to win at Ames.
 
As I frantically wrote down the other results, an explanation for my mistake came to mind: Bachmann’s camp area had been the only one with just one massive and closed tent (which had allowed her to advertise that her supporters would get air conditioning). I had not been able to get in (although the happenings on the inside stage had been being piped through loudspeakers to the outside), so perhaps there had just been a lot more people in there than I had surmised.
 
I left the Coliseum and hurried over to the Bachmann area to see what victory celebrations were underway. The various camps that had been bustling just hours before were now largely deserted. Almost everyone had gone home, and some of the tents at various sites were now being taken down. A small crowd and several camera crews, however, were pressed again one of the few remaining Bachmann buses. I stood nearby for about fifteen minutes listening to nearby aides and volunteers congratulate each other. Eventually, veteran GOP strategist Ed Rollins, presently serving as the Bachmann campaign’s wise elder, stepped out of the bus and quietly shook a couple of hands. However, the candidate herself did not immediately emerge, so knowing that I had a long drive ahead of me, I went back to my car, which I could see halfway across the now sparsely-populated series of parking lots. Returning to the freeway, I again passed the same campaign signs, but this time their significance had been expended. They had become just the residue of a moment now freshly in the history books.
 
The Losers

As I drove away, I was leaving a cemetery in which were buried four presidential campaigns, those of every participating candidate except Bachmann

and Paul. Most obvious was Pawlenty’s defeat. His prompt announcement this morning that he is dropping out was the most dignified way to close down a campaign that simply could no longer function. By all accounts, he had bet the farm—and, apparently, most of his remaining campaign funds—on a win in Ames, and having failed there, he had no plan B.
 
Still, his defeat was deeper than its sheer magnitude suggests. By and large, all other participants were either to his right or more libertarian, so he had the moderate and garden-variety conservative vote to himself. He also had by far the best claim to being the strongest conventional candidate given the combination of his resume and history of electoral success. He was, on paper, a solid establishment candidate.
 
However, I think one should understand yesterday as another battlefield victory of the Tea Party (for both its somewhat mutually exclusive libertarian and strongly conservative wings) over establishment conservatism like those we saw in some crucial 2010 congressional primaries. In the past, it had been more moderate candidates like Romney in 2007 and Bush in 1999 who won Ames, so the tides did appear to be turning in Iowa. Given that, perhaps a Pawlenty-style establishment campaign was just doomed to struggle in Ames.
 
That said, though, Pawlenty did inflict some damage on himself. I had never paid much attention to him until the press began discussing him as a possible candidate shortly after the 2008 elections. He was billed as a pragmatist who had successfully implemented some conservative reforms in the somewhat left-leaning state of Minnesota and had even narrowly won reelection in the 2006 Democratic wave year. That sounded good to me, and I immediately put him on my list of possible people to support. However, after listening to him give two or three speeches around 2009 and 2010, I was quickly disappointed. He
was not just somewhat uncharismatic (the charge that has most often been thrown against him recently), but much more importantly, he was shallow. He talked a bit about his childhood and his wife, gave some standard “God bless America” type stuff, and ran through predictable Republican talking points about health insurance reform. With some practice, I could have delivered his speeches. What was special about this guy?
 
From all my observations of Pawlenty, this emptiness persisted until about late May when I first saw him giving speeches and Q&A sessions that actually got into some substance. This culminated for me on June 28 when, during a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, he took a risky stand by criticizing the growing dovish tone of some Republicans’ foreign policy and emphasized the U.S.’s positive potential as a catalyst for freedom around the world. It was an inspiring and substantive speech. However, substance may have come too late, and I suspect that his 2012 campaign will go down in history (to the extent that it does at all) as being largely undefined and nonspecific.
 
As for the other three participants—former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, businessman Herman Cain, and Michigan Rep. Thaddeus McCotter—none was in a good position before Ames and their performances even below Pawlenty’s make their situations even worse than his.
 
Santorum’s 10% of the vote earned him fourth place, and, despite his claims to the contrary, this is a defeat for him. What is he doing wrong? The answer, really, is nothing. He is a talented politician, well experienced as a two-term senator from a big state, and so far a good debater. He also has a natural niche as he tries to establish himself as the top-tier, strongly conservative candidate. However, his
problem is the 2006 Election in which he lost his third-term reelection campaign by a historically massive 41%-59%. In U.S. politics, it is simply rare to lose reelection and then subsequently win a higher office. As a result, people have been ignoring him, and if it had not been for 2006, it is a reasonable bet that yesterday he would have been not just a strong but maybe even a front-running candidate. As it is, he did not secure nearly enough momentum yesterday, especially as Bachmann fills the niche that he could have taken.
 
Coming in right behind is Cain, the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO whose oratorical skills and outsider appeal have translated into some momentum as he too seeks to become the most conservative major candidate. In all fairness, his 9% showing for fifth place is actually quite impressive given his obscurity just one year ago. However, he has also shown his amateurish side and is perhaps the most gaffe prone of all the candidates (including the widely-reported gem in which he said he would be uncomfortable hiring Muslims to work in his administration and then later clarifying that, essentially, he would indeed hire Muslims but would just feel uncomfortable while doing so). Given such self-inflicted wounds, he had already spent his initial burst of momentum. To proceed further, he needed a real breakthrough yesterday. Fifth place is not such a breakthrough.
 
Turning to McCotter, one hardly knows where to begin. He entered the race very late and claimed to have participated at Ames more as a beginning of his campaign than as a test of it. Realistically, though, he has no reason to foresee any momentum, and his unbelievably poor showing of just 35 votes (or 0.2%) was quite a bad omen. It was actually a bit embarrassing to watch. His tent’s activities largely consisted of him playing guitar along with a band (apparently to brand him as a populist), but they performed to a forlorn small group of mostly-empty folding chairs. When he spoke in the Coliseum, he was the
only candidate not to have a throng of supporters join him right in front of the stage. His speech was substantive and actually did energize the audience to some extent, but his campaign is going nowhere. There is a Senate seat up in Michigan next year, and he might be a decent candidate for it. There is still time to switch.
 
The Winners

Certainly, yesterday was a great day for Bachmann and Paul. One must remember that Bachmann is just a third-term representative who entered the race relatively late, so her victory is organizationally and politically a huge accomplishment. Likewise, Paul showed enormous growth since 2007 when he came in just fifth place at Ames. Both candidates will likely now earn some momentum for these accomplishments, and both are now serious players for top showings in the Iowa Caucuses, the next major contest of this campaign that will likely occur in January or February.

 
Having said that, though, their victories also show the Straw Poll’s limitations. Given both of their outlying positions on not raising the U.S. debt ceiling and Paul’s open musings that it might be all right if Iran gains nuclear weapons, it is apparent that the 17,000 Iowa voters who participated do not constitute a cross section of either the U.S. polity or Republican primary voters. It reinforces that Ames is moving toward not so much being a Republican primary contest per se but a sub-primary among its most conservative and libertarian candidates. As such, yesterday was the triumph of
Bachmann and Paul over Santorum, Cain, McCotter, and others who did not even participate. Bachmann will now be the most conservative of the top tier candidates, and Paul reaffirms his status as the libertarian option. While that is only a piece of the overall primary dynamic, it is nonetheless an important one.
 
The Noncombatants

Also speaking to Ames’s niche status is the fact that while six candidates did participate, eight did not. For three—former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, former Alabama State Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, and former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer—this appears to have been because their campaigns are already on life support and simply could not pay the participation fee let alone the costs of effectively competing. Political consultant Fred Karger, another long-shot, is likely in a similar position but did send a small but enthusiastic group of volunteers to staff a table encouraging support for Karger as a write-in candidate. However, whatever his vote count, it did not reach the minimum 1% requirement to be reported independently in the vote totals. For all four of these candidates, Ames just reinforces the already obvious fact that their chances of victory are essentially zero.

 
Faring only slightly better is former Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich, who from his days as speaker of the House in the 1990s could theoretically be a major candidate. However, his campaign is in shambles after a series of disruptions within has campaign staff and ongoing negative focus about his past and present personal life. His decision to skip Ames was not a tactical one but merely the result of his functional inability to compete. Since he is a bigger-name candidate, the State Party included him on the ballot anyway, and as a result he did earn 2%, a respectable number given that he did not work for it. Nevertheless, that does not take away from the fact that his campaign is now just running on fumes.
 
Meanwhile, two candidates skipped the contest for legitimate tactical reasons. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney appears to have feared suffering Pawlenty’s fate of underperforming as an establishment conservative in a Tea Party-dominated environment. Nevertheless, one must not forget that he won at Ames relatively easily in 2007, so conceding one of his few pockets of success from last time is a sign of weakness (or at very least a
strong indicator of just how rightward Iowa is turning). Nevertheless, he is running a strong campaign elsewhere around the country, so of all the candidates, he is among the least effected by Ames. Besides, he did earn honorable mention by being on the ballot (like Gingrich) and capturing 3% with no effort.
 
The other candidate to skip strategically is former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, who is running a more center-right campaign focused on Iowa’s twin early voting state of New Hampshire. Although an impressive candidate, he would not have been viable in Iowa and is skipping the state entirely. The fact that his presence on the ballot only earned him 0.4% reflects this reality.
 
Finally, a note must be made of yesterday’s other big news: the entrance of Texas Gov. Rick Perry into this race. He has potential to become a major candidate who is already scoring strongly in state and national polls. While the full implications of his campaign would need its own discussion, Ames did provide some evidence of his strength: on merely the basis of write-in votes, he garnered 4% for a sixth place showing. While obviously a small number, that result is remarkable given the logistical difficulties of earning
write-in votes and his lack of organization. It could be the foreshadowing of a major campaign in the upcoming Iowa Caucuses and beyond.
 
The Future of Ames

As in previous years, much discussion hung over the Straw Poll about whether it is a useful contest to have and more generally whether it is appropriate for Iowa to exert so much power over the nomination process. Why should only Iowans control two key rounds on the GOP side? There is not a great answer to this, and perhaps it is time to spread influence more equally to other states.

 
The Iowa State Party also does itself no favors by setting the pay-to-play tone that permeated the whole event yesterday and that has been the object of so much criticism. It is already unfortunate that candidates have to pay for tent space to be guaranteed a slot on the ballot, but the program itself was almost suffocating. Between candidate speeches, the Party ran what were essentially commercials for various special interests over the Coliseum’s view screen. The Iowa Energy Forum even got the have its president give a useless speech right amidst the candidate addresses and, presumably, paid extra for the opportunity. On top of all this, the right to vote (or, for non-Iowans, even attend) brought in an additional $30/person (the cost of which was largely covered by the campaigns’ own bulk ticket purchases). While there is no question that the State Party and Iowa State University incur expenses that deserve reimbursement, the extent to which enfranchisement was pegged to financial contributions was a bit much.
 
Still, Iowa will remain powerful as long as the candidates imbue it with power. Six chose to recognize the Straw Poll as a legitimate contest, subject themselves to its processes, and bind themselves to the fate it dealt. As long as that keeps happening, then Ames will continue to be the epicenter of at least this phase of some candidates’ campaigns. However, for other contenders, Ames is of rather little consequence. After all, we cannot forget that the last nominee, John McCain, skipped Ames and only received 1% for a tenth place finish. He then came in only fourth place in the Iowa Caucuses. Obviously, Ames is no key to success.
 
However, the reality is that after each of the last three Straw Polls, a candidate fell out within two days. Lamar Alexander did so in 1999, and Tommy Thompson followed suit in 2007. Pawlenty has now suffered the same end. Multiple other candidates have also fallen out by mid-Fall, implosions that have sometimes been the very direct result of lingering wounds from Ames. The fate that Ames deals can truly be a brutal one. However, in each recent cycle, others won victories and propelled their candidacies forward as a result. Thus Ames remains a role of the dice, a roll that some candidates will make and others will not. However, as long as a critical mass of candidates (and this time six was easily enough) keep rolling those dice, then Ames will remain a place of great importance.
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