Iowa has never been much of a tourist destination. The state’s main attractions are fictions (Riverside, Iowa: The Birthplace of Captain Kirk); or business schemes: (Walcott, Iowa: The World’s Largest Truck Stop); or the birthplaces of the long dead and historically-dubious (West Branch, Iowa: Herbert Hoover; the Amana Colonies: communist village).
For a brief period, the state clung to the wild success of the Oscar-nominated motion picture, Field of Dreams. And fair enough. What state, particularly one in America’s forgotten swath of flyover country, could resist a line—even when delivered by the ghosts of cheating baseball players, emerging from an eerie fog and a field of corn—“Is this Heaven? No, it’s Iowa?”
Field of Dreams also popularized the memorable line, “If you build it, they will come,” a phrase that is a fitting description for Iowa’s latest, and arguably most successful phase of destination-ism: presidential politics.
How else to explain this snowballing phenomenon:
The straw poll. The caucus. The political press corps that drops in for a good (and growing) part of a year, for both. The cast of improbable presidential candidates—the Tim Pawlentys, the Rick Santorums, the Herman Cains—that flock to the state, an intemperate plain of 3 million, with willingness to invest inordinate time, money and energy to peddle their political hopes and stump at places—none too small or off the map—like the Iowa Coffee Cup Cafe in Sully or the Pizza Ranch in Manchester.
Molly Ball, writing for Politico 15 months ahead of the 2012 election, described the week ahead in Iowa on Monday:
The most important week of the 2012 presidential race so far begins now. Whatever happens in Thursday’s debate and Saturday’s straw poll in Ames, the Republican field is likely to be narrowed. No candidate will come out of Ames the same as he or she went in. Some may not come out at all.
This ominous and consequential event to which Ball refers is the Iowa Straw Poll, which will take place this Saturday, August 13, in Ames, Iowa. Indeed, it is a big day for the cast of presidential contenders. And yet, the straw poll is at heart just a fundraiser for Iowa’s Republican party.
The first straw poll, held in 1979, was a modest event; a picnic with speeches that lasted a couple of hours and that was intended to save the Iowa GOP from debt.
This year, the straw poll is an event of such anticipation that it warrants a countdown clock and a nationally televised debate. The festivities will last all day on the grounds of the Hilton Coliseum—not quite as grandiose as it sounds; it’s just a basketball arena—and treat visitors to the spoils of an entertainment and food arms race that are not completely compatible with the image of the next executive of the United States.
Michele Bachmann will have a petting zoo, country singer Randy Travis and air-conditioning; Herman Cain will offer Godfather’s pizza; Rick Santorum, his seven children, pork sandwiches with homemade “presidential peach preserves”; and a “Summer Dance Party,” starring the music of The Crickets, the band that backed Buddy Holly before he died in a plane crash (in Iowa!) in 1959 (Big Bopper Jr., whose father also died in the crash that day, will also play).
At the end of all this, those who hold $30 tickets will vote for whom they would like to be the Republican nominee for president in November 2012. In most cases, they will vote for the candidate who bought their ticket and bussed them to Ames. The results will reflect how much participating candidates were willing and able to spend to bring supporters there, but it will be framed in reporting as a legitimate show of the “organizational strength” of candidates.
It’s always a wonder the media takes the Iowa straw poll so seriously. And, funny, each straw poll, the media wonders this themselves! As sure as the quadrennial fundraiser itself, the dawn of each election season, begins with the media’s dutiful puzzling about Iowa and its prominence in politics.