George Will / Aug. 7, 2011

Making Hay in Iowa

WASHINGTON -- Being in politics, said Eugene McCarthy, is like coaching football: You have to be smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it is important. The game of presidential politics is especially arcane in the cunning weirdness of the Ames straw poll, a quadrennial fundraising event for Iowa's Republican Party.

WASHINGTON – Being in politics, said Eugene McCarthy, is like coaching football: You have to be smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it is important. The game of presidential politics is especially arcane in the cunning weirdness of the Ames straw poll, a quadrennial fundraising event for Iowa’s Republican Party.

Republicans praise entrepreneurship, and in Iowa they practice what they preach. The poll, first staged in 1979, occurs Aug. 13. It will record the presidential preferences of persons transported to Ames by competing candidates, who will also buy their supporters’ $30 tickets. It would be naughty to compare this to a poll tax, but it does purchase the right to vote. Supporters will be fed, flattered and entertained in spaces the candidates rent for that purpose, this year paying a minimum of $15,000, and up to $31,000 for the best one.

Ron Paul paid $31,000, which is good news about inflation: In 1999, George W. Bush paid $43,500. Paul wins many straw polls because his intense supporters nurse an implacable grudge against the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. The New York Times says Paul’s online fundraising event “Ready, Ames, Fire” added $550,000 to the $4.5 million he collected in the second quarter. Also, events seem to be validating his message, which is that the country’s financial condition is awful.

This year, the Ames contest of most consequence is between the tortoise and the hare – between former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and current Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann. He would be much easier to elect than to nominate; regarding her, reverse that.

If Pawlenty’s methodical long-march-through-the-cornfields strategy pays off in Ames – that is, if he gets perhaps 4,000 votes – he can partially upend the national media narrative that has cast him as already a spent force. His understanding of the stakes is apparent in the fact that he is investing $1 million in the Ames event – about one-fourth of the $4.2 million he raised in the second quarter.

Pawlenty emphasizes, as tortoises will, the long run. His campaign believes Bachmann is potentially a flash in the pan whose campaign is brittle because of her propensity to say peculiar things (e.g., about Concord, N.H., the Founders and slavery, John Wayne). Pawlenty’s problem is the short run – between now and Saturday.

If Paul finishes first or second, the political community will shrug: There he goes again, the Babe Ruth of straw polls. If Paul and Bachmann, in either order, capture the two top spots, Pawlenty’s campaign may be mortally wounded. If another candidate propelled by an intense faction – former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a favorite of evangelicals who in 2008 were 60 percent of Republican caucus participants – also finishes ahead of Pawlenty, the Ames circus will have destroyed the only one among the six candidates who bought space – and therefore are permitted to speak – at the event who has a realistic chance to be nominated and defeat Barack Obama.

The six who have bought space are Pawlenty, Bachmann, Paul, Santorum, Herman Cain and Michigan Rep. Thad McCotter. Three other announced candidates are also on the ballot: Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman. Adding to the zaniness of the Ames exercise is this: Polls indicate that the last piece of the Republican nomination puzzle, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, is nipping at the heels of front-runner Romney. But Romney has not bought space in Ames and Perry is not on the ballot – although write-in votes are permitted.

The Ames poll has not reliably predicted the winner of Iowa’s caucuses five months later, and the caucuses have been an uncertain trumpet regarding the winner of the nomination. In 1979, George H.W. Bush won the poll and the subsequent caucuses but lost the nomination to Ronald Reagan. In 1987, Pat Robertson won the poll, Bob Dole won the caucuses and Bush won the nomination. In 1995, Phil Gramm and Bob Dole tied in the poll, then Dole won the caucuses and the nomination. In 1999, George W. Bush won the poll, the caucuses and the nomination. In 2007, Mitt Romney won the poll, Mike Huckabee won the caucuses and John McCain won the nomination.

In 2011, a purchased, or at least rented, small portion of the nominating electorate of the state that ranks 30th in population can profoundly influence the coming political choices of voters in the 49 other states. You can’t make such stuff up. And you wouldn’t want to.

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

Who We Are

The Patriot Post is a highly acclaimed weekday digest of news analysis, policy and opinion written from the heartland — as opposed to the MSM’s ubiquitous Beltway echo chambers — for grassroots leaders nationwide. More

What We Offer

On the Web

We provide solid conservative perspective on the most important issues, including analysis, opinion columns, headline summaries, memes, cartoons and much more.

Via Email

Choose our full-length Digest or our quick-reading Snapshot for a summary of important news. We also offer Cartoons & Memes on Monday and Alexander’s column on Wednesday.

Our Mission

The Patriot Post is steadfast in our mission to extend the endowment of Liberty to the next generation by advocating for individual rights and responsibilities, supporting the restoration of constitutional limits on government and the judiciary, and promoting free enterprise, national defense and traditional American values. We are a rock-solid conservative touchstone for the expanding ranks of grassroots Americans Patriots from all walks of life. Our mission and operation budgets are not financed by any political or special interest groups, and to protect our editorial integrity, we accept no advertising. We are sustained solely by you. Please support The Patriot Fund today!


“Our cause is noble; it is the cause of mankind!” —George Washington

The Patriot Post is protected speech, as enumerated in the First Amendment and enforced by the Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America, in accordance with the endowed and unalienable Rights of All Mankind.

Copyright © 2021 The Patriot Post. All Rights Reserved.

The Patriot Post does not support Internet Explorer. We recommend installing the latest version of Microsoft Edge, Mozilla Firefox, or Google Chrome.