Iowa Straw Poll: Much Ado About Nothing

By Ron Steinman

The Iowa Straw Poll conducted Saturday, August 13, in Ames, Iowa, was not all the press is making it out to be. The day after the poll, The New York Times buried the true lead of the story deep inside the paper. This is what it said: “It was hardly a perfect laboratory of democracy.” I have not read everything about this bizarre ritual in Iowa, but The Times is the only place I saw that reference.

Here, then, is a small cheer for The New York Times. Before I go further, some perspective is necessary. The final vote count was 16,892. Sorry, pundits, despite your math, that is not enough to draw future conclusions. The event was only for Republicans by Republicans. The campaigns that could afford it, and Michele Bachmann’s was a leader here, bought people the $30 ticket they needed to allow them to vote. Shades of shady politics. Tammany Hall in New York anyone? Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s?

Individual campaigns also provided free lunch. Not bad with all the fun and games added to amuse the children. Corn dogs and popcorn anyone? According to all reports, many of the candidates spent hundreds of dollars on entertainment as well.

This event in Ames was a carnival fundraiser for the Republican Party of Iowa. It was a festival that completely pulled the wool over the eyes of the press. Not a bad deal for a day of play for the diehards in the Republican Party. This is hardly what I would call democracy in action. I saw the event listed as “a pep rally for Republicans,” whose only aim is to defeat President Obama in 2012.

The day after the poll, on Sunday, August 14, major newspapers and TV news lead with the results of Iowa Straw Poll in Ames. Fair enough, but only to a point. As we now know, the winner was Michele Bachman — Tea Party social conservative and an excellent campaigner despite how she leans– with less than 29 percent of the vote or 4823 supporters. Second was Ron Paul — who I am sure with his minority Libertarian views thrives happily on some distant planet — with fewer than 28 percent of the vote’s cast or 4671 votes. Third was Tim Pawlenty at fewer than 14 percent and only 2293 votes. Rick Perry, who that Sunday declared for president, was not on the ballot but, as a write-in candidate, received 718 votes, his presence already felt, but who he really is is unknown. Except, we do know he courts, and has the support of, the evangelical community in America and especially in Texas. Mitt Romney was not present nor on the ballot, but he managed 567 votes anyway. Is he still the front-runner among the staid faithful who support his campaign? Newt Gingrich pulled 385 votes and Jon Huntsman had only 69 people willing to stand for him. Others in the race had numbers that meant even less. I wonder why they remain in the race, except that it may guarantee big speaker fees down the road. These numbers say that almost anyone could have received votes in that atmosphere.

Tim Pawlenty looks at his votes, surveys the scene and decides to end his campaign that Sunday. Was it money, a lack of heart, or generally almost no enthusiasm from the public? We may never know why he made such a quick exit. Watching Pawlenty announce he was ending his long and futile campaign it was easy to see relief cross his face that it was finally over. He gathers his family, gets in a car and heads home.
The press, with nothing else on its mind but Republican politics — and here I feel sorry for my former colleagues –, decided the event in Ames set the tone for the whole of next year. Having done no campaigning except appearing at prayer breakfasts whenever he could, Rick Perry was suddenly sharing front-runner status with Ms. Bachman. At least this was the case according to our overworked political pundits. Michele Bachman sits in front of more TV cameras than anyone knew existed. Dutiful, fawning TV reporters did nothing to challenge her views on everything, yes, everything. She looks good on camera. She sounds almost as good on camera but she says nothing, espousing a far right creed that I am not sure she understands.

Rick Perry, Michele Bachman and Mitt Romney will now have to fight it out for the Republican nomination. No one else seems to be on the horizon, unless we perpetuate the fiction, as does Karl Rove, of Governor Christie of New Jersey and Representative Paul Ryan of budget cutting fame jumping into the fray.

Will any of them still stand in six or nine months? Romney still tests better among most of the party faithful. No one has yet challenged Rick Perry on any of his ideas and their results, especially in employment, education and immigration, and the controversy surrounding them in his home state of Texas. Michele Bachman, who never answers a question directly and is a marvelous dissembler, is fast becoming the latest in a series of Teflon candidates who seem to thrive on presidential politics. A

ll politics is selective. One from column A, one from Column B. Mix and match until someone gets it right. Hope for the best, which is what the Republican Party will be doing to see which formula, if any, works for it. No matter how we parse it, and despite the paucity of pure votes, each candidate is seeking legitimacy. The Ames County Fair does not come close to helping them out, unless you are a member of the press and need a column for the next day.

What gives, I mean what is going on with our political reporters in this time of high unemployment, partisan disaster in Washington, and a near failing American economy? That is what they should be writing about – as many do — not about some silly, the-fix-is-in straw poll in one of the smaller states in the country.

Now that the press has set its own parameters for political coverage, I am sure reporters and editors will dutifully report on the sniping between candidates as they try to do everything he or she can to capture the brass ring, the White House in 2012. The sniping will be the story. Sadly, substance will be an also-ran because there is a belief that for the electorate, substance takes second place to presentation. And for these Republican candidates, presentation leads the pack. Yes, Ames, Iowa “was hardly a perfect laboratory of democracy.” What a way to run a railroad. Nevertheless, the games are already beginning.

Editor’s Note: All photographs by Are Flaten.  Ron Steinman is executive editor and a columnist for The Digital Journalist and The Digital Filmmaker. An award-winning producer for NBC News and NBC’s Today Show, he served as bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam war, and later as bureau chief in Hong Kong and London. At ABC News Productions, he produced documentaries for A&E, TLC, the History Channel and Discovery. He is currently an independent documentary producer, director and writer through his company Douglas/Steinman Productions. He is the author of eight books, including “Inside Television First War: A Saigon Journal”, that details how NBC News covered the war in Vietnam.