And despite the inevitable chorus of ‘this is silly!’ ‘this is a sham!’ coverage in the run up to the straw poll, the media continues to show up to the actual event in increasing numbers—even as straw poll goers has declined (24,000 voted in 1999 vs. 14,000 in 2007). There were 453 accredited journalists that covered the 2007 Straw Poll. This year, there will be over 700. Of the 136 news outlets, 28 are international. The Iowa GOP has been surprised—and presumably delighted—by the increase in foreign journalists and bloggers that are covering the straw poll this year.
Thanks to technological advances and social media, 2011 straw poll coverage has been especially robust. Through Politico’s Candidate Tracker, one can know the whereabouts of candidates at all times. The Des Moines Register has a comprehensive caucus site and political reporters are tweeting Michele Bachmann’s speeches from the stump.
And then there’s the extra attention that will come as a result of the high-profile Republican debate Fox News and The Washington Examiner will host in Ames on Thursday night.
“Like the caucuses themselves, the straw poll has taken on a life of its own. It becomes somewhat of a chicken and egg thing,” says David Yepsen, who worked as a political reporter for Iowa television and The Des Moines Register from the early ‘70s until 2009 when he became director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “Politicians don’t exactly like them and media people criticize them but who shows up first? Media people, including a lot of us who report the results but who would also point out criticism that David Broder made: the Iowa straw poll has gotten so large it has given Iowa “two bites of the apple.” Media people show so candidates show up so media people show up. It’s hard for any campaign to say ‘I have to pull out.’”
Yepsen points out that every year, there are a few candidates that opt for the “bypass Iowa” strategy. He notes, though, that this only works for candidates who are already well known and don’t need the media attention. Those that do must compete. But just as a candidate’s chances can be propelled by media attention from the straw poll, they can die by it:
“If one of these candidates doesn’t do well in the straw poll, they have to drop out. They can’t raise any more money,” says Yepsen. “That’s supposed to be one of the things that the caucuses themselves do. It either elevates a candidate out of obscurity and or winnows the field. And here we’ve got the straw poll doing this and you have to buy a $30 ticket.”
And despite such protestations, the media has made the straw poll, just as much as it has made any of its candidates.
Yepsen traces the beginnings of the straw poll to a ploy by Iowa’s Democratic party in the early 1970s. In 1969, Iowa passed a strange piece of legislation that had the consequences of making its caucus the first presidential nominating event in the country. In an effort to draw national attention and funds, the party, partnered with local media, usually The Des Moines Register, to conduct straw polls.
Because Iowa had the first caucus and political journalists looked to the state as a bellwether, it was only natural that national media began taking note of these pre-caucus contests and reporting them. Eventually the Democratic National Committee banned the straw polls, seeing them as unhealthy to the party. Newspapers got out of the game as well.
“The Republicans went the other way,” says Yepsen. “And it just progressively grew.”
Ever since the first Republican straw poll picnic in 1979, when lesser-known George H.W. Bush won the vote over front-runner Ronald Reagan (who didn’t participate), coverage of the straw poll has centered on how it might indicate a candidate’s organizational strength and reshape the expectations game. When Bush won, no one took the results too seriously, though his candidacy got a boost, and Reagan got a reminder that other candidates were out there, organizing.