Iowa straw poll and the fight for the GOP’s soul

By J Brooks Spector 15 August 2011

On 13 May, 17,000 Iowans descended on the small town of Ames for their quadrennial Republican Party straw poll. Since 1979, this giant summer fair has taken place prior to the presidential election. Just maybe, now it will be a three-way race between Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann and the newcomer to the battle, long-time Texas governor Rick Perry. By BROOKS SPECTOR.

Located virtually in the centre of Iowa and right in the middle of the US, Ames is not a big place, with a population of less than 60,000 people. In the heart of the  “corn belt”, the city is home to several major government agricultural research labs and ranked ninth in the CNNMoney.com “Best Places in America to Live” list. Ames calls to mind some of those wholesome, images from films like “The Bridges of Madison County” or “Field of Dreams”. But, lurking in the background, might be Grant Wood’s emblematic painting, “American Gothic”, that depicts a stern sense of rectitude, but also some serious narrow-mindedness.

Iowa represents only about 1% of the total US population and about 93% white. The people live on farms, in small towns and modest cities. It’s surprisingly unrepresentative of the US as a whole and an unlikely place to try out themes that will have to win a national election fought largely in the electronic media space. Nevertheless, Ames’s straw poll has become the protean location for the real kick-off in the American presidential election cycle. 

For many Ames could be a stand-in for a mythic vision of what America once was and should be. In that mental space, it becomes something like the way American comic writer and broadcaster Garrison Keillor described his own fictionalised hometown of Lake Woebegone, a place where “all the men are tall, all the women are handsome and all the children are above average”. More usually, it’s “fly-over” country where nothing much happens, the yawning void between California and the East Coast.

But for the past week, Ames was transformed into ground zero for American politics and just about every Republican politician was there – except Texas Governor Rick Perry (but more on him in a bit). The Iowa Straw Poll, so-called because it really doesn’t decide anything or have any official sanction other than a way to raise money for the Iowa Republican Party, is just a straw in the wind, although two winners have gone on to gain the party’s eventual nomination for president. In spite of this seeming lack of official blessing, since 1979, the state’s Republican Party has held this mid-summer gathering to bring thousands of party supporters to a big party. It’s part political rally, part county fair and part rallying cry for Republicans – and Iowa – to get some national media attention.

Taking place in the Hilton Coliseum on the campus of Iowa State University, candidates pay for the privilege of entering and hosting a booth to hand out campaign literature, hire popular music performers to entertain and the chance to give a short speech to rally support. Would-be voters pay a $30 (around R200) entry fee, get a chance to eat lots of corn on the cob, hamburgers and pork, get their thumbs doused with indelible ink to keep them from voting too often, and be part of the initial moments in the country’s emerging political trajectory.

In keeping with the relative lack of authoritativeness, even non-Republicans are allowed to vote in the straw poll, although voters must be at least sixteen-and-a-half years old and legal residents of the state, or attending an Iowa university or college. Although there is that entry fee to keep out total political carpetbaggers, to maximize support, some campaigns have been known to pay this fee on behalf of would-be voters.

Since 1979, three of the five straw poll winners have eventually gone on to win the early Iowa caucus, and the state’s quota of delegates to the convention. Two of five winners (Bob Dole in 1995 and George W Bush in 1999) gained the party’s nomination for president. However, only George W Bush made it to the White House.

This year listed candidates include the notional frontrunner, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, congresswoman Michele Bachmann, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, Texas congressman (and libertarian and Tea Party progenitor) Ron Paul, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, businessman Herman Cain, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former Utah governor (and Obama administration ambassador to China) Jon Huntsman and Michigan congressman Thad McCotter. Romney’s name was on the ballot, but he wasn’t trying hard to win this poll, trying to remain the frontrunner by default and a near-Olympian posture above the fray.

Those not on the ballot included Texas governor Rick Perry, Sarah Palin and several lesser-known figures. Nonetheless, Palin was visiting Iowa in a media-centric blitz and Perry’s operatives were apparently hoping a write-in wave in this straw poll would bolster his Saturday announcement in South Carolina that he too plans to seek nomination for president.

While not contesting the poll, Romney’s team clearly hoped to have a decent showing – to help maintain a sense that he is actually the frontrunner. However, in the past several days, Romney made the kinds of verbal miscues that may have exposed weakness. For example, on the Thursday night televised debate between would-be Republican candidates, he managed to say he wouldn’t eat Barack Obama’s dog food (whatever that may have meant) and had insisted that even large, soulless corporations still deserve special consideration with their tax loopholes – a statement only a bloodless tax attorney could embrace.

Meanwhile, Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty, who both come from the neighbouring state of Minnesota, were trying to stake out a clear space as the real candidate to beat and the hardest, most conservative in the field. As Bachmann and Pawlenty took their gloves off and “duked it out” on Thursday’s televised debate over who was a fiercer acolyte of conservative values, they put a nationally televised end to their state’s long-time reputation as the “capital of nice”.

National Rifle Association (NRA) items are displayed at the NRA booth on the grounds of the Iowa straw poll in Ames, Iowa August 13, 2011. REUTERS/Daniel Acker

Winning the straw poll apparently was dependent on appealing to social conservatives, especially Republican Party-supporting, church-going Christian fundamentalists – the same kinds of people who had embraced Baptist preacher, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee the last time and whom analysts believe are now searching for a new candidate to back. While economic issues may have captured national headlines and were part of Bachman’s winning appeal, according to this poll these so-called “values voters” put issues like same-sex marriage much higher up their list of concerns. The analysts and pollsters will be dicing and slicing the voting data very carefully to answer this question and thereby give guidance to candidates as they approach the caucuses and primaries in the months ahead.

Meanwhile, back with the candidates less likely to gain much traction in the straw poll, Jon Huntsman tried to carve out a space as the adult candidate who serves the higher national interest and won’t sign thoughtless pledges about taxes or social values concerns, while Newt Gingrich seems to believe arguing with the media is the right way to position himself as a thought leader.

In the end, it was Bachmann and then Ron Paul bunched together at the top. After Saturday’s results, Tim Pawlenty threw in the towel. Romney’s lacklustre result can still be attributed to a decision not to compete actively in the straw poll.

As John Dickerson judged it for Slate: “It was a big day in Iowa for people who will not be president. Michele Bachmann crushed at the Ames straw poll, and Ron Paul came in a strong second. If history is any guide, that means neither candidate will make it to the White House. The man who many Republicans think will win the nomination was half a country away. In South Carolina, Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced that he is running for president.

“The two poles of energy in the Republican race highlighted the tension that faces the party: between sending a message to Washington and sending a candidate who can win an election. All parties face this tension, but it is particularly acute for the Republican Party at the moment. President Barack Obama is weak, which means a Republican candidate could appeal to independents who have soured on Obama. At the same time, Tea Party activists—who give the party its power and energy and who have reshaped politics in Washington—alienate those same independent voters.”

Rick Perry’s supposedly “under the radar” write-in effort gave him a bit of a boost and served as a sidebar to his widely covered announcement of his candidacy. Now the media will zero in on his record, his policies and his every word. In his 11th year as Texas governor, Perry is now the longest-serving governor in the country. A genuine “Bible thumper” who has hosted statewide prayer meetings to call for divine assistance to lift a crushing drought in Texas, he has crafted a political appeal that reaches out to Christian fundamentalists even as he argues that his low-tax, small-government approach has made Texas a leader in job creation and economic growth. Critics note that much of this growth has actually come from growing federal government military spending and Texas’ willingness to take funds from that frequently reviled (at least by Republicans) Obama administration economic stimulus package. Moreover, Texas’ sorry national state-by-state social welfare and education rankings point to the less-than-sanguine effects of the Rick Perry small government approach.

Given charges by his opponents that Romney’s record is one of a ruthless political shape-shifter, Perry has now adroitly positioned himself as an alternative in a way none of the other potential candidates may manage. Going forward, Republican activists, policy wonks and just plain voters must now begin to consider if challenging a vulnerable Barack Obama next year will best be done by Mitt Romney’s argument that as a former businessman he knows how to create jobs (despite that troublesome healthcare plan that eventually became the exemplar for Republican pet hate, “Obamacare”), by Rick Perry’s record as the kind of small government social conservative party activists say they yearn for or by a Michele Bachmann or one of the also-rans who somehow manages to break free from the pack in spite of the odds. Ron Paul has passionate supporters, but he cannot win. Full stop.

All of these calculations must eventually also take on board the more troubling question of whether the new Republican Party/Tea Party orthodoxy of cutting budgets, no tax changes or revenue enhancement, and no stimulus spending in a still-weak economy will, ultimately, be the right prescription for 2012 to bring back economic health and job creation. In the end it will probably come down to whether or not Barack Obama’s administration can goose unemployment down and economic growth up. DM

Join the counter-revolutionary expansion movement. iMaverick.

Read more:

  • Michele Bachmann wins, and the GOP presidential campaign kicks into a new phase on Slate
  • Iowa Poll Goes to Bachmann; Paul Is Second in The New York Times
  • Ames straw poll first test of 2012 in the AP
  • Rick Perry’s Entry Sets Up a Clarifying Contrast in the Washington Post

Photo: A vendor sells buttons at the Iowa Straw Poll in Ames, Iowa, August 13, 2011. REUTERS/Jim Young


While we have your attention...

An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money - though not nearly as much as its absence.

Every article, every day, is our contribution to Defending Truth in South Africa. If you would like to join us on this mission, you could do much worse than support Daily Maverick's quest by becoming a Maverick Insider.

Click here to become a Maverick Insider and get a closer look at the Truth.

Election 2019

Maimane takes hardline on illegal immigration at DA’s 2019 campaign manifesto launch

By Ferial Haffajee

Canola oil is named such as to remove the "rape" from its origin as rapeseed oil.