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Craziness in Ames is part of the Iowa caucuses

COMMENTARY | July 25, 2007

In one event—the GOP straw poll in Ames, coming up in August—voters have to pay $35 to take part. But not to worry, the candidates often foot the bill. And for sure, the press will cover it.

By Gilbert Cranberg

The poll tax in the South was abolished decades ago. It’s a measure of the bizarre character of the presidential nominating system that a key event in Iowa’s pivotal first-in-the-nation caucuses features a close cousin of the poll tax, a $35 charge to cast a ballot in the straw poll Iowa Republicans will stage Aug. 11 in Ames.

Then there’s vote-buying. A substantial chunk of the votes cast in the straw poll are purchased by the presidential candidates, who cart many of the voters with pre-paid ballots to Ames. There, they listen to speeches, show an Iowa driver’s license and vote.

The last time Republicans had a contested presidential nomination, in 2000, the Iowa GOP conducted a similar straw poll. For that one, in Aug. 1999, the charge to vote was $25. To report it, 600 journalists from more than 250 news organizations descended on Ames. This time, a similar number of journalists is expected to be augmented by bloggers.

Heavy coverage is anticipated even though the “poll” violates all the precepts of scientific public opinion measurement and is basically a fund-raising stunt for its sponsor, the Iowa Republican Party. In addition to peddling ballots, the party collects from the candidates $15,000 to $25,000 for tent space at the straw poll site to advertise their presence. The moral of the story: stage a presidential horse race and the press will come no matter how contrived, crass or faux the event.

That said, the affair in Ames does test the ability of the candidates to bring supporters to the polls. When I stepped into former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee’s Iowa campaign headquarters the other day, every one of the half-dozen young people at desks in the office was working on the Ames turnout. Eric Woolson, Iowa campaign manager for Huckabee, said that’s the assigment for the entire staff of 15 until Aug. 11.

Woolson, a veteran of the ‘99 straw vote campaign who worked then for George W. Bush, was confident the other campaigns also were concentrating on the Ames event, although Mitt Romney said the other day he would scale back his effort for a showing there. Nevertheless, so much is being poured into the straw-poll venture no longer is a bus to be had in all of Iowa to haul people to Ames.

When I asked Woolson if any of this made sense, he laughed and agreed that it didn’t. But as he and others explain the rationale for an all-out Ames effort, it does have a kind of loopy logic to it.

The Iowa Republicans who schlep, or are schlepped, to Ames to vote in the poll are described as hard-core caucus-goers who will be among the 100,000 or so who will show up next winter at neighborhood precinct caucuses. Their dual tasks then: to cast a much-publicized straw vote (yes, that’s also a straw vote, but without the tax) for their presidential favorites and to start the ball rolling on delegate-selection.

The expected turnout in Ames of some 40,000 for speech-making and rubbing shoulders with politicians will include the key 20,000-25,000 who will cast straw ballots there and then presumably go on to be a critical presence at the caucuses scheduled for Jan. 14.

Republicans who frequent caucuses tend to be ideologically-committed conservatives. Huckabee bills himself as an “authentic conservative.” If he is to break out of the pack and into the top tier of contenders, the pre-caucus Ames straw poll offers a shot at the kind of oxygen that’s essential for his campaign. While perception isn’t everything, it counts for a lot. The perception the press can help create that a candidate has to be taken seriously is why so much is being invested in the Ames poll, oddball as it is.

John McCain and Rudolph Giuliani said recently they would not actively compete for votes in the Ames poll, although their names will be on the 11-person ballot.

That may take some of the starch out of the straw poll as a media event, but for the Huckabees in the GOP field the room McCain and Giuliani left at the top gave the remaining Ames contestants incentive to redouble their efforts.

The caucuses, like the dry-run Ames poll, are mostly about impressing the press and influencing its coverage. To make a showing in the caucuses, candidates must induce voters to leave their homes for an hour or two of politicking, but it’s far tougher getting supporters to a place like Ames. Precinct caucuses convene in neighborhoods just minutes from where Iowans live; the straw poll can require an all-day commitment and hours on the road.

The front-loading of primaries and caucuses immediately following the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire was supposed to diminish their importance. To judge from the frantic campaigning here, the strategy hasn’t worked. The unintended consequence of trying to outflank Iowa and New Hampshire seems, if anything, to have inflated their role by giving candidates incentive to use the earliest states as springboards for the delegate-rich contests that follow.

So, if it seems crazy for candidates to spend serious money and effort to stuff ballot boxes in Ames, well, it is. But if presidential hopefuls come out of the media-driven event with the press attention they crave, they will seem crazy like foxes.


[Click here for the first in the series on the Iowa caucuses]

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