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In the Iowa straw poll, candidates got exactly what they paid for

COMMENTARY | August 12, 2007

Romney got 32% of the votes -- but he kicked in 32% of the funding. That's fun and games and democracy at work. (One in a series on the Iowa caucuses.)

By Herb Strentz

What might be called “Round One” in the 2008 presidential campaign ended like most first rounds with the winner still in doubt and people still pondering a lot of “what ifs.”

A scorecard for Saturday’s Iowa Straw Poll would register some disappointment and concern for the Iowa Republican Party because the 2007 turnout was much lower than expected, well below the 1999 straw poll, the last time the GOP did not have an incumbent on the ballot. In 1999, 23,685 votes were cast; last Saturday’s count was 14,302, a 40 percent drop. That meant almost $100,000 less in contributions to the Iowa GOP.

The scorecard for the press is mixed. And the scorecards for the candidates are muddled because Sen. John McCain and Rudy Giuliani decided they could spend their time and money in better ways than in enriching the Iowa GOP.

The straw poll precedes the scheduled first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses by some five months, and is primarily a fund raiser for the Iowa Republicans. It cost $35 to cast a vote, with most of the votes paid for by the candidates. But that does not stop the press from treating the results as an-honest-to-goodness election — reporting the votes instead of following the money.

Critics say the attention to the straw poll is a news media creation of the 1980s, providing political copy during supposedly slow news cycles in August and finally giving the press some numbers to report instead of rehashing the same old stump speeches. But the roots go farther back than that.

The late George Mills, the Des Moines Register chief political reporter for four decades, created a straw poll of his own, sending Register secretaries and others to a GOP summer gathering with “straw poll” questions to be answered, tallied and reported. His successor, James Flansburg, now retired, continued the practice and laughed the other day as he said the Republicans stole the idea, when they introduced a straw poll as a fund raiser in 1979.

One of the better examples of news coverage this year was by Adam Nagourney and Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times. (Zeleny is a former Des Moines Register reporter.) They touched all the bases, including the disappointing turnout.

News media attention was down a bit this year, too, with a reported 400 or so journalists from 150 news organizations, contrasted to some 600 from 250 organizations in 1999. Much of the news coverage still gives readers and viewers the illusion the straw poll is close enough to an election to count for something. But really, it is more like undergraduate competition to see which fraternity or sorority can raise the most money for a charity. Only the “charity” is the Iowa GOP and the winners do not get a trophy or a plaque, but a better chance to be President of the United States.

For those who prefer their democracy in the quaint fashion of reasoned campaigns, universal suffrage, perceptive news coverage, having more than one voting place in a state, etc., the straw poll is a mid summer’s nightmare supported more by rationalization than by common sense.

Political junkies delighted in the straw poll merriment and carnival atmosphere on the Iowa State University campus. Small wonder, because the food and entertainment are free; you only have to pay, or be paid for, if you want to vote.

For their part, the news media often characterize the straw poll as a harmless and interesting diversion during the summer when nothing else is going on — except, of course, for the war in Iraq, questions of impeachment, what appears to be a scary stock market, a worsening national infrastructure, a decades old crisis in healthcare, increasing government surveillance of the citizenry and other minor issues like that.

So in the months leading to the straw poll in Ames, presidential wannabes who routinely espouse fiscal accountability and tight-fisted spending while on the stump have thrown a lot of money around Iowa. The straw poll results that matter in this regard are not that former Gov. Mitt Romney finished at the head of the pack with 4,516 votes (31.6 percent of the total), but that the coffers of the state GOP were refilled a bit. Here’s what candidates kicked in as part of straw poll vote buying. The table — which you’re unlikely to find in the nation’s press — provides a more appropriate picture than one listing vote results.

Candidate                      Kick In
Mitt Romney                   $158,060
Mike Huckabee                $90,545
Sam Brownback              $76,720
Tom Tancredo                 $68,635
Seven others                   $106,610
Total vote buying            $500,570

Keeping McCain and Giuliani on the ballot and adding Fred Thompson netted 487 votes or $17,045 for the Iowa GOP as part of the total. No write-ins are allowed.

The $500,570 is just for openers. In addition to providing supporters with $35 tickets good for one vote each, campaigns chartered hundreds of buses, hired bands, rented tents at the Ames political carnival, and provided food and games for supporters and hangers on. Nevertheless, considering straw poll voting alone, the Saturday festivities trailed the $592,125 in 1999 when votes were $25 apiece. Iowa GOP executive director Chuck Laudner estimated the state party pocketed $1 million in 1999 with the money in vote-buying and the remaining $400,000 or so coming from other entrepreneurial schemes, like this year’s renting out space for tents at $15,000 to $25,000 a crack.

Using 1999 as base, the 2007 festivities likely netted the Republican Party of Iowa at least $850,000. That pales beside the $150 million that a state official says the Iowa economy pulls in as a literal cash crop from straw poll and caucus political spending. Millions remain to be spent before the caucuses, scheduled for Jan. 14.

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