Ames Straw Poll
(Born August 1979, Died 8/13/2011)
The Ames Straw Poll died a quiet death in the summer of 2011, although the patient didn’t realize it was all over until five months later.
For the better part of three decades, the straw poll, held on the campus of Iowa State University, amounted to a must-attend event. Though it was nothing more than a fund-raiser for the Iowa Republican Party, it transformed itself—with a major assist from the mainstream media (shakes fist)—into an early indicator of who might wind up winning the first-in-the-nation caucuses in the Hawkeye State.
In 1979, 1987, and 1999 the straw poll winner went on to win the caucuses. In 2007, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee—remember him?—came in a surprising second at Ames and went on to win in Iowa the following year.
As the supposed importance of Ames as organizational litmus test grew, so too did the pageantry surrounding it. By the time George W. Bush and Steve Forbes faced off in 1999, it had become a full-blown carnival.
In a parking lot outside of the Hilton Coliseum—where Cyclone hoops greats like Fred “The Mayor” Hoiberg and Marcus “Huge NBA Bust” Fizer (OK, that wasn’t his nickname) once roamed, the Iowa GOP auctioned off the various parcels around the voting site to the aspirants. In 1999, Bush, who was practically bathing in cash, dropped $40,000 just to have the best and biggest space in the Coliseum parking lot. In 2011, Texas representative Ron Paul was the highest bidder—spending $31,000 for his plot.
Once their piece of land—concrete, actually—was secured, the real spending began. Elaborate tents and stages were built, caterers were hired to feed the masses, dunking booths were set up, tickets were bought for attendees. (Yes, one of the great/terrible things about Ames is that the candidates paid for their “supporters” to attend.)
And the media swarmed. And I do mean swarmed. More than eight hundred press credentials were issued for the 2011 version of Ames, which amounted to more votes than either former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney or former House speaker Newt Gingrich received at the event itself. Reporters from Japan, Germany, and every American news outlet you have ever heard of—and many you haven’t heard of—circled those few days in mid-August as a must-do for campaign coverage.
With reporters literally everywhere, political hangers-on were drawn to Ames like flies to a carcass. (And, yes, I am aware I just compared the media—of which I am a member—to an insect that vomits its own food.) National Rifle Association supporters paraded around Ames wearing orange hats. Men dressed like Uncle Sam and women dressed like Lady Liberty were a dime a dozen. And everywhere, everywhere were people pushing pet causes that ranged from the mildly credible to the demonstrably insane.
Over the years, reporters covering Ames grew ever more cynical about the event—and what it told us about the Republican race. After all, no more than 23,000 people had ever voted at Ames—in 2007 just 14,000 did so—and the idea of it as must-stop for political candidates was fading rapidly. But cover it they did—and did, and did, and did.
The 2011 Ames straw poll changed all that. First, Romney, who had been the favorite since it became clear he was running for president again (and that became clear about five minutes after he dropped out of the 2008 race), bowed out—insisting that any straw polls were a waste of time and energy for his campaign.
But Romney isn’t the one who, ultimately, stuck the dagger in the heart of Ames. That honor goes to Minnesota representative Michele Bachmann.
And it’s beyond ironic—in that Alanis Morissette way—that it was Bachmann who killed the straw poll. After all, Bachmann rode to prominence in Iowa by touting the fact that she was born in Waterloo and, therefore, understood the hopes, dreams, and problems of the state’s residents better than the outsiders trying to hone in on their votes.
It worked—for a while. Bachmann surged over the summer months, and when straw poll day—August 13, 2011—came it was clear that she was the favorite. Her tent was the largest of any on the grounds, and there was a steady stream of people angling to get inside for the chance to glimpse the candidate herself. (Oddly, once you made it inside the tent, which had all its flaps down to keep in the air-conditioning, it wasn’t all-so-spectacular. Between the cool temperatures and the darkness it reminded me more of a cave than anything else.)
No one was surprised then when the straw poll results were announced and Bachmann had won—albeit it very narrowly over Paul. (Much more about Paul—and the cultlike following he has developed—later.)
What few people realized at the time was that Ames marked not the beginning of the beginning of Bachmann’s run as a top-tier candidate but instead the beginning of the end. Even as the straw poll results were being read, Texas governor Rick Perry was announcing his decision to enter the race—and it only got worse from there for Bachmann.
The following day, at a Lincoln Day Dinner in Blackhawk County—yes, that is really the name of the county—Bachmann and Perry were both scheduled to speak. The Bachmann forces saw it as a chance to engage Perry on their terms—after all, they were just coming off of a huge straw poll victory, and the Texas governor was just now entering the race. Instead it turned into a symbol of everything that was to go wrong for Bachmann as summer turned to fall.
While Perry worked the room, displaying the sort of natural charm that voters saw too little of in the campaign, Bachmann’s famous/infamous campaign bus was circling the venue. The candidate refused to enter the dinner until Perry had cleared out. When she did, finally, speak, she was “horrible,” according to a former adviser to the candidate. The practical effect of her circling the target was that Perry had already won the room and the media coverage of the event. rick perry schools michele backmann in waterloo read the headline from a Politico story on the event.
Things went from bad to worse for Bachmann. Perry having stolen her thunder, Bachmann watched her support erode badly—both in Iowa and nationally. She kept up a brave face. Try to find a picture from those months where she isn’t smiling. Seriously. We dare you. And to her credit, she did well in her increasingly limited role in the dozen (or so) debates during the fall.
By the time Iowans voted—a whole three days into 2012!—Bachmann’s political obituary and that of the Ames straw poll had already been written. Bachmann won 4,823 votes in the Ames straw poll. One hundred forty-four days later, she got just 6,046 votes in the actual Iowa caucuses—good (that may not be the right word) for sixth place. It’s actually even worse than it sounds. Only six candidates were actively competing in Iowa; former Utah governor Jon Huntsman skipped the state entirely but managed 739 votes. (Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who won the Iowa caucuses, finished fourth at the straw poll with 9 percent.)
Bachmann’s first-to-worst performance ends the Ames straw poll as a barometer of much of anything in Iowa Republican politics. Yes, it will continue. And, yes, defenders of the straw poll will insist the Bachmann victory/collapse was the exception, not the rule. And, triple yes, the media will almost certainly continue to cover it as though it means something.
But smart politicos—and I am nominating myself for this category—now should know better. Ames was always, at root, a fund-raiser masked as an actual contest; after all, in what other election do you buy people tickets to attend and vote for you? Bachmann’s victory laid bare the utter meaninglessness of the Ames straw poll as a predictive or productive exercise.
Ames died that day in mid-August 2011 at the hands of one of its own—Michele Bachmann. Let’s hope it stays dead.
And in its place? (The Fix is all about solutions, after all.) How about an American Idol–like competition in which each week the candidates are tested on various skills they’ll need to make it in the presidential race.
Think about it. One week they could do the “major aspirational/inspirational speech.” Another week it could be working a rope line. Or dealing with the fallout from a scandal in your campaign. Or kissing babies. Or dealing with a hostile audience. How about a mock debate? I mean, the possibilities are literally endless.
At the end of every week, America would vote on who did it the best. I mean, this is a democracy after all. The lowest vote-getter would get a chance to argue for his political life in front of a three-person panel of judges—me, Katie Couric, and Bill Clinton (like he wouldn’t totally want to participate)—and then would have judgment rendered. You get kicked off, you drop out. And so it goes until we get down to a final four candidates, at which point we begin the traditional nominating contest.
Is there any question that the level of interest in politics would shoot through the roof? With the public voting every week there would be a genuine engagement well beyond what we currently see in the early days of a primary race. It would also take money out of the process—at least at the start. Rather than spending the lion’s share of their time trolling for cash, the candidates would dedicate themselves to perfecting skills they actually would need if/when they managed to be elected president.
Plus, is allowing the public to choose their final four candidates via a Political Idol competition any more arbitrary than the way we currently do it? No way.
The Best Political Blogroll—Anywhere
People always ask me what I read on a daily basis. Answer: not all that much. I skim. So, then, what do I skim? That’s easier. Below is the most comprehensive blogroll I—plus some of my smarty-pants friends—could think of. Rip these pages out of the book and put them next to (or in) your computer. You’ll need them this fall.
From the Right
Jim Geraghty, Campaign Spot: http://www.nationalreview.com/campaign-spot
Hot Air: http://hotair.com/
American Spectator blog: http://spectator.org/blog
Michael Dougherty: http://www.businessinsider.com/author/michael-brendan-dougherty
Down the Middle
Nate Silver: http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/ (or is he center?)
From the Left
Steve Benen: http://maddowblog.msnbc.msn.com/
Jonathan Bernstein, Plain Blog: http://plainblogaboutpolitics.blogspot.com/
The Monkey Cage: http://themonkeycage.org/
Ezra Klein, Wonkblog: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein
Greg Sargent, The Plum Line: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line
The Best State Political Blogroll—Anywhere
National blogs may get all the attention (present company included), but for the true political junkie (present company included), there’s a whole other level of terrific blogging going on at the state level.
We’ve collected out favorite(s) from each of the fifty states. Bookmark them. There’s no better way to follow Senate, governor, and House races than through these state-specific blogs.
Doc’s Political Parlor
Left in Alabama
Wanted Alabama Democrats
California Majority Report
Fox and Hounds Daily
Rough & Tumble
Colorado Peak Politics
Peoples Press Collective
CT Capitol Report
My Left Nutmeg
Florida Progressive Coalition
Sunshine State News
All Hawaii News
43rd State Blues
Capitol & Washington
The Bean Walker
Under the Golden Dome
Dome on the Range
Barefoot and Progressive
Page One Kentucky
Between the Lines
Pine Tree Politics
Blue Mass Group
Blogging for Michigan
Hot Dish Politics
MN Progressive Project
Cotton Mouth Blog
Majority in Mississippi
Fired up Missouri
Show Me Progress
In the Sausage Factory
Inside Nevada Politics
Las Vegas Gleaner
The Nevada View
Nevada News Bureau
WMUR Political Scoop
Democracy for New Mexico
The Albany Project
The Daily Politics
State of Politics
Cape Fear Watchdogs
Talking About Politics
Under the Dome
Flickertales from the Hill
Ohio Daily Blog
The Sidney Independent
Third Base Politics
The McCarville Report
2 Political Junkies
South Dakota War College
Humphrey on the Hill
Burnt Orange Report
Out of Context
Green Mountain Daily
Vermont Daily Briefing
Not Larry Sabato
NW Daily Marker
West Virginia Blue
Wyoming Capitol Journal
The Not Top Ten—the Ten Issues You Won’t Hear About This Fall
“It’s the economy, stupid.”
Truer political words were never spoken. James Carville and George Stephanopoulos made that phrase famous during Bill Clinton’s 1992 run for president, but it matters as much today as it did twenty years ago.
The economy is the only issue on voters’ minds. More than six in ten Floridians, South Carolinians, and New Hampshire-ites told exit pollsters that the economy was the most important issue to them. Every national poll conducted over the past three years has shown something very similar.
You would have to be a real dummy—and given that you have bought this book you obviously are not—to miss that the 2012 election will be decided by the state of the economy.
If the economy is sucking up every ounce of oxygen in the political room—bad (and extended!) metaphor alert—then what other issues are being suffocated? What would we—and the candidates—be talking about if they weren’t talking about the economy all the damn time?
In honor of SportsCenter—aka the show that Mrs. Fix demands be turned off when I am watching it straight through for the second consecutive hour—we give you the Not Top Ten Issues of 2012.
Copyright © 2012 by Chris Cillizza. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.