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Iowa Truths: Veteran political reporter analyzes the Ames Straw Poll
It’s once again the time in American politics when all eyes turn to Iowa, and nearly every political pundit in the nation pauses long enough on his/her trek into flyover country to wonder why.
To be clear, national dissenters do have legitimate points to make when discussing the Ames Straw Poll. It really is all about money — money for the Republican Party of Iowa, money for Iowa venders and money for local merchants who benefit from foot traffic and hotel room rentals. There’s also the aspect of which candidate is willing to spend the most money in order to produce a good showing. Free food, free entertainment, free bus rides are all a part of the day’s luxuries for GOP activists.
From the outside looking in, the whole process appears a bit cynical — and that is exactly where national pundits and parachute journalists miss the whole point.
The Ames Straw Poll is a spectacle. It’s a rowdy carnival of politics, served with a side of barbeque and ice cream. There’s little wonder why, despite the best efforts of Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, that those interested in politics want to look this way. It’s gritty. It’s fun. It’s an opportunity to catch a glimpse of extreme Iowa retail politics in action. But, it’s also easy for those in neighboring states or even across the big pond to get caught up in the show and the one-upmanship, and forget they are only peeking in Iowa’s windows and not really participants.
In 2008, for instance, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won the vote tally at the Ames Straw Poll, prompting a nearly never-ending string of national reports about how Romney was set to capture the party’s nomination. Months later, when The Iowa Independent editorial team predicted that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee would take the caucuses, the idea was radical to the national media — so much so that our 2007 Power Rankings were a topic of discussion on Fox News.
“How could this be?” was the collective groan heard nationally, “Romney tossed everything he had at Iowa.”
Of course, the 2008 caucuses forced the national media to reconsider its view of Iowa voters. How could they reconcile a state that selected both Huckabee and Barack Obama? The answer, at least for those not on the ground in the Hawkeye State, was to paint the Iowa GOP as being overwhelmingly social conservative — a misconception that continues to this day, and has served to elevate a man three times rejected by Iowa Republicans as a chief executive to the level of 2012 “kingmaker.”
Many believe the money behind the Ames Straw Poll is Iowa’s dirty little secret, but here’s the real secret: Everyone in Iowa knows that money is the driving force behind the straw poll. More importantly, Iowa GOP caucus-goers are savvy enough to adjust their thinking about the campaigns with respect to money being spent. It is well understood here that the straw poll is non-binding. As Drew Carey would say, “That’s right, the points don’t matter, just like a salad bar at a strip club.”
What does matter in Iowa is perceptions, expectations and observations. What has a candidate been doing for the past few weeks at the grassroots level? Who are the people — staff members, strategists and activists — that a candidate has chosen? In summary, given everything now known, what type of support should this candidate be able to produce at the straw poll?
Current Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, for instance, was considered an Iowa favorite prior to the 2007 straw poll. He had few gaffes, was a personable individual with a fair amount of charisma and appeared to have an inside track with various constituency groups. His ultimate placement in the straw poll wasn’t horrible — he came in third — but Iowans expected him to do better. Those who had previously been firm supporters began to question their initial judgment, and his base softened significantly — much of it moving to Huckabee following his better-than-expected second-place finish.
For the 2012 candidates, the straw poll is a time that they must shine — and this is especially true for those who haven’t garnered much national attention and for those that have placed the majority of the aspirational eggs in the Iowa basket.
Tim Pawlenty — All of Pawlenty’s hopes now ride with the straw poll. Iowans have watched as his campaign has grown, often pulling in some of the most knowledgeable and experienced caucus staffers. He hasn’t just beat the Iowa ground, he has beat it repeatedly while appearing beside social conservatives, at county functions and a wealth of other events throughout the state. For him not to be in the top three at the straw poll would be an unforgivable performance. A top placement would beat perceptions about his campaign not catching fire with Iowans, would be the driving story coming out of the straw poll and would boost him forward into the national spotlight.
Michele Bachmann — If Bachmann doesn’t place at the top of the field, she will not meet the expectations and perceptions of Iowans. If she doesn’t meet those expectations, her campaign dies in Iowa because she — more than any other candidate — needs the legitimacy of the caucuses to push her into New Hampshire, real estate currently owned by Romney, and South Carolina, soon to be the property of fellow southerner Perry.
Ron Paul — Although Paul’s campaign paid the highest amount for his placement in the straw poll, expectations surrounding him aren’t all that high. Most Iowa Republicans know there are some within their party that have a significant Libertarian bent, and that those individuals will support Paul no matter what. Such support in 2007 earned him a fifth place straw poll finish. He needs to clear that goal post and then some in order for his campaign to continue its march toward the mainstream in 2011. But even if he doesn’t, he won’t go away and his core supporters won’t go away. And, at the end of the day, that might be the biggest obstacle to his success in Ames. If the overriding perception is that you won’t drop based on straw poll placement, some Iowans might lend their support to another candidate who holds certain ideas that the caucus-goer would like to see continue as a part of the 2012 discussion.
Mitt Romney — There are no expectations related to Romney. The straw poll has no bearing on his campaign, which will continue on no matter what. So, look for him to place low in Ames, as core supporters check the box beside another name — likely in hopes of catapulting a lesser known name above those candidates perceived as Romney’s biggest national rivals.
Rick Perry — It remains to be seen if Perry’s South Carolina announcement will energize or disappoint Iowa Republicans. Either way, expectations are low for the Texas Governor; any placement above the eighth slot will keep his name buzzing. That being said, if his write-in campaign manages to pull enough support to place him among the top three, it won’t matter who is slotted above him. In that scenario, Perry will be the headline of the Ames Straw Poll.
Rick Santorum — While Santorum has been largely ignored by the national media, except for those who have negatively noted some of his campaign stops, he does have a core following in Iowa that is largely related to social conservatives. In fact, if Bachmann wasn’t in the race, there would be a very high perception that Santorum would do well on Saturday. With more social aspects of the party split between candidates, however, Santorum just needs to meet mediocre expectations. A fourth or fifth placement should seal the deal for him, so long as he continues to be a fixture in Iowa throughout the fall. Beyond that, however, on the Iowa stump, Santorum has billed himself as the candidate who has taken on Democrats in Democratic districts and won. While this is true, Iowans are still waiting to hear why they should support a man who couldn’t maintain his seat in the U.S. Senate — something beyond him saying that it was just a bad year for the GOP in Pennsylvania. If he can’t give Iowans a reason to believe, even a third place finish won’t serve him well and he’ll be out before the end of October.
Newt Gingrich — No one expects Gingrich to do much, and he won’t. He will, however, continue to strike out at the media for his and his campaign’s shortcomings.
Thaddeus McCotter — There is a real window of opportunity emerging for McCotter in Iowa, who appeals to a broad facet of Iowans. He will, of course, need to overcome the star power of some of the better known candidates, and he is at a distinct disadvantage to those who have been campaigning in the state for months. Yet, even those who are hard-boiled supporters of some of the front-runners have been giving McCotter a second look. His stump speech is like a feature-length drama — full of danger about the future, with GOP activists cast as the protagonists that must rise up against all odds and save the entire world. Unfortunately, McCotter has hitched his wagon during this past week to the national religious conservative groups who have been touring the state to raise awareness of the issues surrounding abortion and marriage for gays and lesbians. There is little oxygen left among that facet of Iowa caucus-goers for another candidate, especially one that has come late and isn’t an already known commodity. His secret weapon is that no one expects him to place well. If manages a respectable placement, he can ride the wave and perhaps earn the support of more experienced staffers and Iowans who abandon other sinking ships.
Jon Huntsman — Like Romney, Huntsman does not rise or fall by the straw poll. He isn’t actively participating and, thus, isn’t expected to have a good showing. The only way the straw poll results make a difference for either campaign is if they become a Cinderella story — a scenario that is not likely.
Herman Cain — There are few expectations attached to Cain’s campaign, which works in his favor. On the other hand, there appears to be too little support for Cain for him to be a straw poll standout. If this event was held a month or six weeks ago, Cain could have been the headline leaving Ames. But it isn’t, and his campaign appears to have peaked too early in the Hawkeye State for him to get much of a boost. Libertarians have mostly stayed with Paul’s campaign, social conservatives are all over the board due to a wide range of choices and fiscal conservatives aren’t convinced he has the experience needed to lead the country.
The remainders — Fred Karger, Gary Johnson and Buddy Roemer — Johnson has made clear to his supporters that he has no interest in the straw poll. Likewise, Roemer, who is focused on campaign finance issues, finds the fundraiser a bit distasteful. Karger, on the other hand, would like to play in Ames and has encouraged supporters to give him a write-in nod. It’s doubtful that Karger, who is out-of-sync with an Iowa GOP rallying against civil marriage for gays and lesbians, will be able to muster even a descent showing, but it will certainly make headlines if he does.