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Ames straw poll lets Republicans and Iowa show their stuff

The festive event puts the media spotlight on Iowa, if not on the leading GOP presidential candidate.

August 11, 2011|By Robin Abcarian, Los Angeles Times
  • Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines.
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt… (Jim Young / Reuters )

Reporting from Ames, Iowa — The news landed with a thud this week.

Not a single candidate had hired Hickory Park, the Ames barbecue institution, to provide food for Saturday's Republican presidential straw poll.

"That is crazy," said Shane Vander Hart, editor of the political blog Caffeinated Thoughts. "I am assuming that is a mistake on the part of the campaigns."

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is bringing in barbecue from Minnesota-based Famous Dave's — "but that's just wrong," Vander Hart said.

In a nod to the Iowa State Fair taking place nearby, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann will sate her supporters with fair-style food: meat sundaes. "Mashed potatoes with brown gravy that looks like chocolate, with a cherry tomato on top," said Alice Stewart, Bachmann's press secretary. "I Googled a picture and it looks like something someone else would eat."

The Ames straw poll is many things: state fair with carnival rides, political convention, fundraiser for the Iowa Republican Party, test of a candidate's organizational strength, and what some might describe as an institutionalized if genteel day of bribery.

But the quirky poll is also testimony to the paradoxical ability of Iowans, who pride themselves on their modesty, to capture the media spotlight. More than 700 news outlets have been credentialed this year, including organizations from Australia, South Korea, Slovenia and Sweden, said Iowa GOP spokesman Casey Mills.

Conducted only by Republicans, the straw poll requires candidates to fork over thousands of dollars to the state party to pitch their tents. They spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, on food, entertainment and transportation, commandeering fleets of buses to get supporters to Ames from around the state. Attendance is erratic; in 2007 slightly more than 14,000 people cast ballots. Eight years earlier, 24,000 voted.

"That's because all the excitement was on the Democratic side in 2008," said GOP strategist Robert Haus. "The overall dynamic was so polluted by the Bush hangover."

It is perhaps the only contest where voters pay a "poll tax" — $30 to cast a ballot, down from $35 last time, in a nod to the poor economy — though candidates usually foot the bill.

In its 32-year history, the straw poll has had a history of minor chicanery seemingly at odds with the state's heartland values.

Until 1999, supporters were brought in from other states to cast votes. In 1995, a handful of voters washed off the hand stamps indicating they'd already cast ballots, and voted some more. "That was the year Bob Dole and Phil Gramm tied, 2,582 each," said Haus, who is producing the program inside the arena. "I think the hand-washing was probably happening on both sides."

Of course, they were serving beer at the straw poll then, which may have contributed to the looser atmosphere. Alcohol has since been banned.

Casting multiple votes is "almost impossible to do now," said Chuck Laudner, the state GOP executive director in 2007. "The Iraqis showed us how to ink fingers, so we didn't have that problem last time."

Now, Iowa driver's licenses are swiped, and voters roll their thumbs in bright-red indelible ink.

The all-day event takes place at Iowa State University's basketball arena, the Hilton Coliseum. Outside the looming concrete building, candidates erect their tents and stages.

The locations, purchased at an auction in June, are afforded great meaning. This year, Texas Rep. Ron Paul got the choice spot, right in front of the entrance to the arena. He spent $31,000 for the location that cost George W. Bush $63,000 in 1999.

Craig Robinson, founder of the Iowa Republican, a website, devoted an entire story to the subject of placement, determining Paul the winner and Pawlenty the big loser because his spot is away from the other candidates' spots, farthest from the voting booths, and will be obscured by a wall of satellite trucks.

"Pawlenty better hope for good weather," Robinson wrote. "If it rains, his area is going to be soggy." (Saturday's forecast calls for isolated thunderstorms.)

Candidates don't have to participate, and the results are nonbinding — and not even predictive of success in the Iowa caucuses, let alone the eventual presidential nomination. Only one candidate — George W. Bush — has won the straw poll, the caucus and the nomination. Though Romney won the 2007 poll, the party's eventual nominee, Sen. John McCain, didn't even bother to campaign for the straw poll. He placed 10th.

Begun in 1979 to help a cash-strapped party get out of debt, it has taken place a mere five times, only in years there is no Republican incumbent in the White House.

Among the pundit class, the poll is often pooh-poohed as organized political bribery — "the Iowa Shakedown" — as a newspaper editorial called it in 1987.

Its legitimacy is regularly mocked. Every four years, there are calls to rethink the process. But Iowans don't give a rip.

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