Monday, August 15, 2011

Misunderstanding Ames

(AMES, IA) This was my fourth Iowa Straw Poll in Ames, Iowa, and, as always, I had a very good time. As my readers know, I take presidential politics very seriously, but I have learned that this Republican quadrennial event in central Iowa is not really a serious political moment in the long campaign. It is, instead, a ritual that raises substantial cash for the state party, and serves as a celebration of contemporary Midwestern conservative politics. (For those who collect political buttons, bumper stickers, hats, t-shirts, brochures and other political memorabilia, it is also the true opening of the presidential campaign on the Republican side.)

When there is an incumbent GOP president running for re-election, they don’t even hold the straw poll. When they do, about 15,000 or so active Republicans show up on the Iowa State University campus, pay $30 for a ticket, picnic on burgers, pulled Iowa pork, hot dogs, ice cream and other summer food, and then vote for their favorite candidate. In many cases, the ticket was paid for, and their transportation provided by, their favorite candidate. This year, as has happened in past years, the most serious GOP candidates didn’t even participate.

The results are often not a surprise. On the drive down from Minneapolis, both the driver of the car and myself correctly predicted the 1-2-3 order of the voting results. I suspect most close watchers of the campaign got it right also.

So why did former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty withdraw from the race only hours after the voting (even though he came in third)? Ostensibly, it was that candidates allow the media to portray the Straw Vote as a real contest in which “expectations” are exceeded or fall short. The results of the Straw Poll do not even necessarily reflect the results of the meaningful Iowa Caucus in February. Thus, GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney (who won the Poll in 2007, but lost the nomination) did not participate. Nor did Texas Governor Rick Perry who used the date to announce formally in another state that he is entering the presidential race.

The media openly predicted that Pawlenty would withdraw if he failed to meet “expectations” in the Straw Poll, and reported it when he did in due course. Now many in the media will complain that such a “quality” candidate should not have been “forced out” so soon. (Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle has certainly come to U.S. presidential politics……)

In only two months, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann came out of nowhere to win the Poll. She defeated perennial libertarian Ron Paul by a narrow margin. Paul, who has a devoted and noisy (but tiny) following usually fares well in unrepresentative polls such as the Iowa Straw Poll, but his weird combination of libertarian and isolationist politics will have him forgotten soon after the time the real voting takes place. Mrs. Bachmann, it should be noted, was born and raised in Iowa, and she made much of being a native daughter before the voting. It was no small advantage, as was her prominence in the contemporary Tea Party which includes many Iowa activists. Once she was in, Mr. Pawlenty did not have a chance. His brief rise to becoming the major challenger to Mr Romney was damaged weeks earlier when he attacked Mr. Romney and then backed off. Lacking Mrs. Bachmann’s instinct for successful attention-getting controversy, and burdened by an expensive over-staffed campaign, he faced bleak fundraising after Ames.

This is the same dilemma faced by former Speaker Newt Gingrich a few months ago when his campaign faltered after he blundered into an unnecessary confrontation with fellow Republican Congressman Paul Ryan. Gingrich’s expensive and overstaffed campaign came to a crisis when his fundraising dried up and many of his staff resigned. But Mr. Gingrich did not withdraw. With a much smaller staff, he has campaigned on, knowing that the actual voting was months away, and that he had something to say. Mr. Gingrich did very poorly in Ames, but it was no surprise. He has continued to do well in the presidential debates, receiving high marks even from observers who had written him off. Mr. Gingrich is not likely going to make an historic comeback here, but his decision to proceed without a large paid staff, expensive advertisements, and other hoop-la is an interesting one, and in strong contrast to Mr. Pawlenty’s.

The media has been beside itself with anticipation of Governor Perry’s entry in the race, assuming that before-his-announcement polls accurately reflect his strength, and that he might clean Mr. Romney’s political clock. I think everyone needs to be careful about this kind of so-far unsupported enthusiasm. Now that he is in the race, he will be much more carefully examined by voters and the media, and we will know just what kind of candidate Governor Perry is, and how strong he is, for example, outside the Bible Belt and the South.

We now have about four months before the real primary/caucus campaigning begins in earnest. Mitt Romney remains the man to beat, and although the Iowa Straw Poll has put forward Mrs. Bachmann (who now with Mr. Perry become his major challengers), the Ames event did eliminate the person who might have given him the most difficulty in nominating campaign. Mr. Romney is showing a lot of self-discipline. He has notable obstacles ahead, but I need to repeat one more time that the November election between the two major parties is always decided by the political center and by independent voters, and there is no sign that either Mrs. Bachmann or Mr. Perry will appeal to those voters who will make the difference.

The presidential election of 2012 inevitably will be a plebiscite about whether or not to retain President Obama in office. The current state of the economy, and the Obama administration’s inept handling of it and foreign affairs, indicates that almost any credible Republican nominee could win next year, but that would be, in my opinion, a premature conclusion. It also assumes that Barack Obama will choose to run for a second term. A Republican nominee who did not appeal to the political center might have a very difficult time winning the 2012 presidential election if the Democratic nominee were now-New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Even if Mr Obama runs again, new events and circumstances could alter the present political consciousness, particularly if the GOP selects a nominee who could not build broad appeal in November.

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