Monday, August 8, 2011

Some Notes Before Ames

We are less than a week away form the Iowa Straw Poll, the symbolic opening event of a presidential campaign year, at least for Republicans. It is always a colorful affair, and the first occasion for political memorabilia collectors to load up, especially with the buttons and bumper stickers of minor candidates who soon enough will disappear from the campaign trail.

The Straw Poll is a fundraising event for the Iowa Republlcan Party. Candidates pay for space to display their candidate and his or her political wares. They pay for the admission tickets for many to attend, and bus them in from all over Iowa. Others come on their own dime, but the final tally is much more about political organization than true voter popularity. The Iowa Straw Poll only occasionally predicts those who win the Iowa caucus (next February), the GOP nomination or the presidency. On the other hand, since 1979 it has become a “tradition,” and I would not miss it.

While it does not accurately reflect Iowa voters’ attitudes, the Straw Poll usually settles some scores, and this year will probably be no exception.

Here are some of the specific matters that could be decided in Ames this year: First, a Minnesota “grudge” match has developed between former Governor Tim Pawlenty who entered the campaign early, and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who entered it late. Minnesota shares a border with Iowa, and Mrs. Bachman was born in Waterloo, IA. Only a few months ago, Mr. Pawlenty was initially the most serious “dark horse” in the GOP field, and on his way to become favorite Mitt Romney’s major challenger. But this changed when Mrs. Bachmann entered the race, openly courted Iowa evangelicals, and rose quickly in the polls. (Some of the latest polls now have her leading.) Mr. Pawlenty, however, faltered after an ill-advised and bumbling attempt to attack Mr. Romney. As of late, Mr. Pawlenty has redoubled his effort in Iowa with an all-out 24/7 tour of the state, adding his wife, and spending some serious money for the effort. My sources tell me that this will pay off, and that Pawlenty will exceed Straw Poll expectations (now expected to be a fourth-place finish), thus keeping his campaign alive for the Iowa caucus, the New Hampshire primary, and possibly beyond.

Ron Paul (a libertarian more than a Republican), has a small but devoted following, tends to do very well in straw polls, particularly the Iowa Straw Poll. He has a next-to-zero chance of winning he GOP nomination, but he might even win the vote in Ames. If he does, the poll’s results will be even more ignored than usual, and the occasion will result in being only what it is, a fundraiser for the state party.

Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman did not purchase display space in Ames, and won’t be actively seeking votes there. But they will be on the ballot, and a better than-expected total for any of them would be politically helpful. (Romney particulary would see his frontrunner states enhanced if he comes in the top three.) In addition to Bachmann, Pawlenty and Paul, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain and Thaddeus McCotter will have booths in Ame and are on the ballot. No surprises are expected with any of these minor candidates.

Texas Governor Rick Perry is not on the ballot, although write-ins are possible. Some consider his probable late entry in the race could be significant. (Others consider his impact will be more like Fred Thompson’s late entry in 2008, i.e., minimal.)

Although the media, collectively, likes to think it can impel candidates who do not do well to leave the presidential race, I think two major figures will remain in the field no matter what happens in Ames. They are Pawlenty and Newt Gingrich. Pawlenty, who was co-chairman of the 2008 John McCain presidential campaign, remembers the Arizona senator’s remarkable comeback after being declaredpolitically D.O.A. in 2007. Gingrich, already a major figure in Republican history, feels he has something unique and important to say in 2011-12, and won’t leave until he thinks he has fully expressed what is on his mind.

Iowa Republicans throw a good party. There will be free barbecues, hot dogs, potato salad, beverages of choice, as well as rock and blues bands. other entertainments, political memorabilia, funny hats, and glad-handing politicians. Like the national conventions, the Iowa Straw poll, in addition to fundraising, is primarily a holiday for the national media. More serious political signals will have to wait.

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