campaign desk

Straw Dogs

Why the press can’t quit Ames, Iowa
August 10, 2011

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:

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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.

There will be the stories that ask things like “Is Iowa still relevant for Republicans?” (Given that these media outlets have already dispatched their political reporters to Iowa, there is an easy answer to the question.) Others will, perhaps wishfully, declare, (as early as October 2009) “Why Some 2012 Candidates Might Skip Iowa.”

Early summer, or even late spring, the political press begins to buzz about the straw poll. Generally, it hedges its bets, by disparaging the contest, but reporting on it all the same (it is after all, the closest thing to something that matters). Anticipatory reports are laced with a rightful degree of cynicism and disdain and typically frame the contest as anything from silly (“an overblown country fair,” writes Malcolm Andrew in the Los Angeles Times; “cunning weirdness” to George Will) to reliably unreliable to “organized bribery on a grand scale.”

And then, when the August event is even closer at hand—a mere weeks away—there will be the long-form story, the straw poll takedown piece, in which a seasoned commentator takes up the baton and tries to write the article that will undress the emperor, shake the political media out from under the straw poll spell, and render the Iowa contest as unimportant as it should be.

Walter Shapiro did it this year, pleading the case in the “The Corn Ultimatum: Put an end to the Iowa Straw Poll—please,” an article published July 28 in The New Republic. The story is also available on the magazine’s website with the teaser, “The Iowa Straw Poll is the Worst event in America.”

Over the years, I have reached a different conclusion: The Iowa Straw Poll is one of the most insidious events in politics. Even though the straw poll is about as scientific as sorcery, political reporters over-hype the results and pretend that they mean something. The upshot is that fringe candidates can get an unwarranted boost and serious candidates can be prematurely eliminated before most Iowa caucus-goers, let alone most Republicans elsewhere, have a chance to decide on their preferences. Yet, despite all of the straw poll’s obvious flaws, and even as some candidates boycott it–John McCain in 2007; Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman this year–nothing, it seems, can dim the prominence of this ersatz election.

He makes a compelling case, but not one that hasn’t been made before.

Joe Klein, writing for The New Yorker, did this in August 1999, in “Spend, Spend, Spend: How Iowans are taking Republican Presidential Wanna-bes to the Cleaners.”

Klein’s whole piece is worth reading, but several presidential cycles later, this passage is still right on the money:

The event will come and go—leaving wrecked and wounded candidacies in its wake—before most people, even most Iowans, notice that a campaign has begun. But the truly remarkable thing about the Iowa straw poll is that it has achieved its prominence despite an unblemished record of failure over twenty years: it has never successfully predicted a Republican nominee, much less a President.

And yet the phenomenon grows—nearly tripling in size from election to election, always compelling and always futile. It is an eternal lure for candidates with more ambition that good sense, a political money pit. Each time around, the local Republicans develop more elaborate and perverse ways to fleece the suckers. “In 1995, when we gave away the plots a first-come, first serve basis, we learned there was some value to having a good space, near the entrance of the arena,” Dee Stewart the Republican Party of Iowa’s executive director, said. “Of course, I was as surprised as anyone by just how valuable some of those spaces turned out to be.”

Klein goes on to describe the circumstances that led future President George W. Bush (who, Klein couldn’t know when writing, would be the only presidential nominee the straw poll has so far successfully predicted) to bid $43,500 for the most coveted of plots, a grassy patch near the entrance of the arena, to pitch his tent.

Ron Paul will occupy the space this year for $31,000. Despite the price decline (it is the only plot to go for less than it did in 1999), it’s hard to say the straw poll’s profile—or the profitability of the event—has diminished since then. According to Hugh Winebrenner and Dennis Goldford, authors of The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event, in 2007, the Iowa GOP thought of another thing to monetize, selling a list of about 125,000 names of previous caucus goers to candidates for 25 cents per name—all but one plunked down $32,000 for the whole list.

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.

The next straw poll, in 1987, was billed as the “Calvacade of Stars,” and in many ways, it was the seed of what the Ames straw poll is today. The event, which drew 200 members of the media and centered around a night of speechmaking, cost $25 and was held in Hilton Coliseum. During the day, candidates hosted a sort of pre-game event, where they set up tents, served food and drink and met with ticket-holders. In his book, Hugh Winebrenner characterized the night’s speeches as “routine” and the supporters “staid” with two notable exceptions of the kind of spectacle that have colored the contest since. To generate publicity for her campaign, in advance of the fundraiser little-known candidate Kate Helsop walked across Iowa with a pig. But it was Pat Robertson, who stole the show and shattered expectations of another George H.W. Bush win, when a group of fervent, uniformly-dressed Robertson supporters from the religious right showed. They had arrived on buses.

Again, while no one took Robertson’s candidacy seriously, Bush’s third-place finish was reported as a shock and a serious sign of his campaign’s organizational weakness. Even back then, coverage reflected healthy skepticism about the significance of the event.

Here’s E.J. Dionne Jr., writing for The New York Times:

While the poll did not persuade Republican leaders that Mr. Robertson had a chance of winning the nomination, they said the party would have to regard more seriously his organization’s ability to mobilize support, especially among devout conservative Christians.

The poll was conducted at a meeting here of about 3,800 Iowa Republicans who contributed $25 each to the state party for a chance to cast a ballot. The precinct caucuses in Iowa on Feb. 8 will be the first important nominating test of the 1988 Presidential race.

The staffs of the other Republican contenders who participated in the straw poll sought to discount Mr. Robertson’s victory as the work of a tiny minority that has few real ties to Republican politics. And they said it would reopen the debate over whether informal ”straw polls” were a leading or a misleading indicator of a candidate’s real political strength.

This argument was made with special feeling by the campaign of Mr. Bush, which saw its image for organizational efficiency tarnished by a third place finish in the voting behind not only Mr. Robertson but also Senator Bob Dole, the minority leader.

The “Calvacade to Stars” also set the precedent for future straw polls, which have been heavy on spectacle, spending and mass mobilization.

In 1995, a year, in which non-Iowans were also permitted to vote, Lamar Alexander flew in out-of-state supporters on two chartered 727s. Charleston Heston stumped for Phil Gramm. And, in what Yepsen says remains his most memorable straw poll moment, candidate Morry Taylor rolled onto the grounds in a Dodge Viper. He was flanked by a group of women on Harley Davidson motorcycles. Cheating was alleged to have been a problem; voters could go to the bathroom, wash the ink of their hands and vote again.

In 1999 and 2007, only Iowans were allowed to vote. Indelible ink was procured. With those two avenues to goosing the numbers closed off, Iowans were treated to more and more costly spectacle.

The press continued to relish in reporting the absurdity and falseness of the event, while committing to it the level of resources and attention that would lead one to take it seriously.
Just as there are media objections in the run up to the straw poll, there are media objections in its wake.

After the 1995 straw poll, The New York Times issued this editorial:

Senator Phil Gramm ran dead even with the front-runner for the G.O.P. nomination, Senator Bob Dole, and for a moment there we were fooled into thinking something momentous had occurred

That is just what Mr. Gramm would have us believe. His “stunning victory,” he said, would force Republicans everywhere to think twice about the inevitability of Bob Dole. The Dole folks reinforced this notion by walking around with long faces and lamenting that the results had been a “reality check” and a “wake-up call.”

Most of this is rubbish. Straw polls are not reliable gauges of anything durable. They may, for one brief moment, show that candidate A’s organization can outhustle candidate B’s. But they say little about organizational strength over the long haul.

So if media have so long loathed the straw poll, why do they cover it?

Yepsen, who has covered his fair share of straw polls, believes there is some legitimacy to the organizational strength argument. There’s also something to being first. “Regardless of what you think of Iowa, it is the first place in the United States of America to start picking their presidential candidates. And that’s a story.”

But he also points out the Iowa GOP has made the straw poll a media event that is hard to resist: The event is scheduled for the middle of August, several weeks into a month where notoriously little happens. To maximize attendance and play to cameras, the poll coincides with the Iowa State Fair, an event that captivates the imagination of coastal types with butter-sculpted cows.

He acknowledges the state—which now has fewer than 80,000 farmers—is adept at playing up a rural, homespun image for outsiders, especially those with cameras.

“It can’t be minimized that there are pictures. [Politicians] come out and scratch the ears on a pig and eat a corn dog, and East Coast photographers can’t resist that stuff. And then there’s the straw poll itself and it’s a carnival atmosphere. It’s just a huge photo-op,” Yepsen says.

There’s another potential reason behind so much straw poll coverage. Calling to mind the Morry Taylor spectacle, Yepsen says the event is “kind of fun.” He adds, “and you know there are a lot of things covering politics that aren’t fun.”

Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.