Grasping at straw polls
By Thomas Lindaman
To hear the media talk about the Iowa Straw Poll, it was more important than the Iowa Caucuses, the Republican National Convention, and Election Day 2008 put together. And when you consider these folks think Iowa as a whole isn't much more exciting than Amish street mimes, it must take a big event to bring media folks here from far and not-so-wide.
Of course, there is one tiny little problem. The Iowa Straw Poll isn't the end all and be all of Iowa politics. In fact, it's not much of anything at all.
For the uninitiated, which unfortunately includes most of the media covering the event, the Iowa Straw Poll is a fundraiser held by the Iowa Republican Party where candidates come, give speeches, and give away free meals and entertainment. The voting is just a gimmick. It's not even scientific. It would be like the Democrats going to a preschool with milk and cookies and getting kids to "vote" based on how many kids ate their cookies. And we know that won't happen because the Democrats would be too busy hitting up the kids for their milk money.
Furthermore, the concept of the poll leaves it open to corruption. With the right amount of underhandedness, anybody can go from being behind toe fungus in the polls to seeming like a contender. The rules of the straw poll state that only Iowans can vote, but do you honestly think they're checking that closely? With a wink and a nod, I guarantee non-Iowans voted in the Iowa Straw Poll and nobody said a thing.
Want some proof? Ron Paul is running right around 1% in the national polls. At the Iowa Straw Poll, he got 9.1% of the vote. For the mathematically challenged or Paris Hilton, that means Paul got nine times the percentage in Iowa that he's getting in the national polls. Now, I'm no Einstein, but I don't think Paul's done that well in the debates to get that big a swing over a Saturday without there being some sort of funny business that would make Chicago voting look clean.
The hype surrounding the Iowa Straw Poll can be boiled down to one key concept that even conservatives like Sean Hannity and kinda-conservatives like Matt Drudge missed completely: the ramped-up election cycle. Do you remember the massive national media coverage of the 1999 Iowa Straw Poll? Neither do I, because there really wasn't any. Seems USA Today and CNN really didn't bother with the Iowa Straw Poll back then because, hey, it was the Iowa Straw Poll. But now that candidates for President were setting up exploratory committees shortly after John Kerry said, "I concede the 2004 election, Mr. President," they were ready to turn any little event into a major news story.
To understand why, you have to understand how the media operate in a normal election cycle. In the past, the media set up what is known as "the horse race." They would track which candidate was surging ahead, which one was falling behind, and which ones were neck-and-neck. Usually, that occurred right around the time of the Iowa Caucuses because that's when candidates really started running. Now, put that concept into a longer time frame, like, say, two flipping years before the actual Presidential election. The media still have to portray the horse race, but they have to do it for a much longer span of time. This means smaller events, like the Iowa Straw Poll, become bigger than Michael Moore locked overnight at a Twinkies factory.
Another point to bring up is how the talking airheads made it a point to note that the turnout at the Iowa Straw Poll was down from the last time it was held in 1999. In their infinite wisdom, they proclaimed it was because Iowa Republicans were greatly dissatisfied with the candidates on the slate so far. Well, excuse me, Nostradumbass, but there were two other factors to consider. One, it was hot and humid. Two, it was the opening weekend of the most popular fair in the country, the Iowa State Fair. If given a choice between being hot and listening to politicians or being hot and being close to fried foods on sticks, Iowans will go for the stick-mounted-instant-heart-attacks every time. That way they know the only hot air blowing on them is natural.
While Mitt Romney slings barbs at Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, and John McCain for not showing up at the Iowa Straw Poll, I'd have to say the former two were smarter than Romney. While Romney spent hundreds of dollars for a meaningless win, Giuliani and Thompson didn't spend anything and still got votes. As far as McCain, the only reason he didn't do so well is because he could get his supporters to the Iowa Straw Poll. Then again, I don't think the Waffle Shanty could handle the loss of their three best mop jockeys for an afternoon, so it was a moot point.
All in all, the Iowa Straw Poll turned out to be an expensive exercise in meaningless rhetoric, political posturing, and unwarranted media coverage. Kinda like the House of Representatives right now, but with more corn.
Thomas Lindaman is a Staff Writer for the New Media Alliance, Inc. and NewsBull.com. The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets. He is also Publisher of CommonConservative.com.