Fun and Ames
My Day at the Iowa Straw Poll—Getting There
The morning is brisk for August in Iowa, with hints of rain adding an edge to the cool breeze, but that hasn’t dampened anyone’s spirits in Ames. The bright mood is set by candidate signs that line the road all the way from Exit 146 to the parking lots at Iowa State University. Eschewing free bus rides offered by the candidates, I drove myself to avoid unwanted bias. As I exit my car in a distant lot on the far side of the football stadium, I can hear the jumbled sounds of music, speeches, and cheers drawing me towards the fair, er…convention, er…I mean, Straw Poll event. The day is just getting started. Voting won’t open until 10:00, but the most devoted supporters arrived at 9:00, and those who (like me) arrive after 9:30 find themselves parking a long ways away. To ensure that no voter arrives with sore feet, several of the campaigns provide golf carts to run circuits between the farthest lots and the candidates’ tents. Having wisely worn comfortable shoes, I choose to walk.
As I blend into the crowd inching towards the Hilton Coliseum, I find myself walking beside a young family with two school-age boys and a toddler in the stroller being pushed by Dad. If it weren’t for the Pawlenty sticker prominently displayed on the top of the stroller, I might think they were headed for to the state fair or maybe a zoo. The rambunctious boys are chasing each other in circles around Mom who gets them to settle temporarily by promising ice cream if they behave.
To my other side are three college-age guys in Ron Paul t-shirts eagerly plotting their day. “He’s the second to speak, so he’ll be on stage at 1:15,” one says. They discuss whether it’ll be best to vote first then hit the tents or hit the tents first and vote after they hear Paul’s speech. “If we vote first, then we can get a free t-shirt.” That settles it. They’ll all vote for Paul first, then figure out what other fun they can have.
Along the sidewalk leading from the main parking to the front of the Coliseum, voters are accosted by various volunteers handing out stickers and brochures, mostly for candidates or causes that don’t have official tents. I snag leaflets for Fred Karger and Gary Johnson, two candidates who were denied the opportunity to participate in the earlier debate due to invisible polling numbers. The Iowa Renewable Fuels Association hands me a pro-ethanol brochure to explain how much better production has gotten since 2004. The Rick Perry folks may not have an official campaign bus, but they cleverly distribute pencils that say “Write In Rick Perry” on them. (I’m still stunned that the Iowa GOP agreed to allow write-ins for the first time ever.) Bachmann volunteers hand out leaflets with directions to her air-conditioned tent. Perhaps Pawlenty should have done that, too…
Seeing the actual convention space, I have to admit that Ron Paul got his $31,000 worth for his location. He’s the first thing you see, the closest to the voting area, and he’s actually got more space than anyone else, including a wide, paved area below the walkways that lead to the voting area. It’s prime positioning, and it provides a sheltered work area for his volunteers to setup his registration and give-away desks while offering shade for the long lines that can queue up here without blocking any of the entertainment. Only Pawlenty has comparable room to spread out, but he’s off to the side, away from everyone else, where you might miss him if you didn’t know to go looking for him.
When I finally reach the front of the Coliseum, it’s nearly 10:00 and time for the polls to open. Already, there are thousands of people here, but the crowds are relatively spread out making it easy to move around. Taking a few minutes to get my bearings before I dive into any of the main tents, I almost bump into Senator Chuck Grassley who is in the midst of an intense dialog with a woman in orange. I initially thought it odd that there wasn’t more of a crowd around him, because usually he can’t go anywhere in Iowa without getting mobbed. But today, he’s just another Iowa Republican at the Straw Poll.
Similar encounters with Ron Paul and Hermain Cain remind me of the biggest difference between this and most other staged political events—why this event really is special, because the voters get a real chance to interact with the Presidential contenders. If I were so determined, I can get a handshake, an autograph, a quick photo and maybe even a personal question answered by each of the Presidential contenders before I go cast my vote. Cain dodges the questions, but Santorum keeps a calm poise as he actively courts the interaction with voters. When asked about his exchange with Ron Paul at Thursday’s debate, the Senator clarifies that he thinks covert actions are the real solution to the problem of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology. I have to give him credit for giving sincere, thoughtful answers to each voter.
The crowds get thicker by mid-morning as people of all ages trickle towards the convention site. Some sample a little from each candidate before settling on a choice, others seek their favorite candidate’s tent first, and the most confident head straight to the voting booths. By 10:30, the line to vote stretches out the door of the Sherman building, down the long walkway past the Coliseum and Ron Paul tents then out towards the parking lot. That line won’t get any shorter until sometime after 3:00 in the afternoon.
The candidates know that kids of all ages like to be entertained, so they each vie to provide the best food, music, games, and freebees.
To those who’ve voted already, Paul and Pawlenty both give away t-shirts. Show your blue thumb, and you get a shirt. I’ve got to give Pawlenty’s team credit for choosing something other than red, white, or blue for their team colors. The John Deere green shirts look like football jerseys with “Pawlenty 12” on the back, and they really stand out in the swaths of red and blue. The worst freebees are from Thaddeus McCotter, who basically has nothing but a few brochures. Honestly, Herman Cain’s traditional-style campaign buttons are pretty boring, too. The most creative award goes to Michele Bachmann for her Frisbees, but she ran out before I made it to her tent, which costs her points in my book.
Pawlenty went all in to win the “best food” award. Catered by Famous Dave’s Barbeque and Dairy Queen, the lines for his food are certainly the longest. Predictably, Herman Cain’s tent is serving Godfather’s Pizza—a fresh, hot, and tasty alternative to the fair-style food at all of the other tents. Bachmann’s tent provides classic corn dogs and cinnamon rolls, for example, and Ron Paul’s tent has gourmet pulled pork sandwiches and corn on the cob in obvious panders to the top Iowa industries.
It seems like everybody has an inflatable play house for the kids, but Ron Paul’s is by far the best. Not only is the “Sliding Dollar” an inflatable slide and climbing wall rather than just a bouncy house, but it is the first thing you see when you arrive, and it immediately grabs the attention of adults and kids alike. The aforementioned rambunctious boys pounced on it right away, to their Pawlenty-supporting parents’ chagrin.
The best music is a tougher question, because that depends somewhat on taste. Country fans will camp out with Bachmann to hear Randy Travis and a handful of lesser artists. Ron Paul offers oldies and goodies by Small Time Dave and the Windy City Groove from Chicago. I can hear the fun pulse coming from Herman Cain’s tent, but his music ends by the time I get there, so I miss who was on stage. Might have been Mike Huckabee—rumor has it he plans to jam with Cain at some point during the day. Pawlenty seeks affirmation from the family values crowd by hosting Sonicflood, a well-known Christian rock group, and Santorum tries to hit Iowa’s nostalgic nerve with The Crickets and Big Bopper Jr. Personally, my favorite is Thaddeus McCotter who gets on stage and takes requests. He and his band rock ZZ Top, but there are only about a dozen around to hear this genius.
For family fun, Bachmann’s tent offers the most options. Balloons shaped into animals and hats, face paint artists, and a veritable arcade of carnival-style games all in the cool comfort of her air-conditioned tent. The drawback? Her tent is closed on all sides to keep the air cool inside, so those outside can’t really see what’s happening and spontaneously join. There are only limited entries and exits, so only those who don’t mind waiting in line to get in and then getting stuck inside for longer than they’d planned will venture into Bachmann’s tent more than once.
If the candidates’ tents aren’t fun enough, there are smaller booths for other advocacy groups such as the NRA, Iowa Energy Forum, Strong America Now, Liberty Law Center, ONE, Right to Life, and many more hoping to influence the politically active conservatives who attend the Straw Poll.
So, we’ve graded the music and games and…wait, what are you saying? This carnival stuff isn’t the important part of this event?
There are probably over twenty thousand people here, including the kids who can’t vote, so I’d guess around 16,000 or 17,000 voters. When the main program kicks off at 12:15 PM in the Coliseum, there are maybe 3,000 inside the arena to say the Pledge of Allegiance and hear the invocation. The Iowa GOP Chairman introduces the Iowa GOP Governor who gives a quick plug for why Iowa’s “first in the nation” status makes sense. Then, all of the candidates are invited to come on stage for a press photo. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…wait a minute…Santorum, Paul, McCotter, Bachmann, and Cain…where’s Pawlenty? No one says anything about his absence, and the half-filled auditorium probably doesn’t notice.
While they play a pro-Iowa video, the room finally fills just before Senator Rick Santorum takes the stage. There are probably close to seven thousand people inside the arena now, and the best seats go to the candidate’s “pit crew,” a campaign-selected core of about 100 supporters who get to sit right up front and wave signs for their hero. In an interesting bit of choreography, between the candidates’ speeches, there is either a video or filler speech to allow time to remove one candidate’s pit crew and seat the next. It gives each candidate an equal chance to speak with an enthusiastic front row. Behind the pit crew is a raised platform for TV cameras, then the press fill the rest of the floor. The audience sits in the padded bleacher seats on the sides of the auditorium.
Each candidate is given exactly fifteen minutes on stage, supposedly including applause and intro videos. That means, if their opening ad is long or if the pit crew cheers and chants for too long, then the candidate gets less time to deliver any prepared remarks. It’s interesting to see how each candidate handles the time pressure. Santorum, Paul, and McCotter all hit fifteen minutes on the dot with a perfect parting applause line. Pawlenty, surprisingly, only uses twelve minutes, including his two-minute intro video. Because his speech ended on a strong note, I’m curious if he made it through his prepared remarks faster than expected, or if he was given a premature cut-off signal of some sort. Herman Cain also cuts short by about a minute after expressing concern about the time constraints. Bachmann, on the other hand, ran two minutes over with no apparent penalty.
After Santorum, Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds takes the stage while they switch out pit crews for Ron Paul. As she steps to the microphone, I do a double-take. I recognize her as the nice lady who gave me directions earlier. She was standing alone outside the Coliseum near the voting line with no entourage or press around her at all. I remember thanking her as I shook her hand, but I didn’t recognize who she was. If I had, I might have asked a few choice questions. What an opportunity lost, but it serves to remind me that Iowans expect their legislators to be out among the people. She bravely put herself in a position where anyone could come up and ask her anything, and she was prepared even for stupid questions about how to get to the main entrance. What she says now is essentially irrelevant, because no one is listening.
By the time Congressman Ron Paul takes the stage, the audience has grown by another thousand or so, even filling a good portion of the upper level. As expected, the crowd roars appreciatively as he stresses liberty, small government, ending wars, repealing the Patriot Act, and the sanctity of life. He blames our economic cycles of boom and bust on the Federal Reserve going off the gold standard, though I wonder how he explains 1929. He suggests eliminating all income and corporate taxes, which makes me question where he expects government to get its revenue. And, he reaffirms his pro-life stance as being essential to liberty.
After Ron Paul exits to thunderous applause, Congressman Steve King takes the stage while they switch out pit crews for Tim Pawlenty. In all honesty, King is the best speaker on stage today. Even though he’s just a “filler” speech, he engages the crowd in an entertaining and bold fashion that makes even the reluctant sit up and listen. After the seemingly mandatory praise of Iowa’s “first in the nation” status, he grabs everyone’s attention by saying that he knows how to make the markets jump by a thousand points on Monday. All it would take is for Barack Obama to get in front of the press and say a few important things. King offers to prepare the teleprompter for Obama, so he can go out and say that Keynes was wrong and Smith was right, and he’s changing his economic policy and declining to run for a second term. The crowd devours the red meat with gusto.
Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty takes the stage to the rowdiest ovation so far. His pit chants, “T-Paw! T-Paw!” Pawlenty tells us that all the other candidates say the same things, but just saying the words isn’t enough. Obama said a lot of things, too, but his rhetoric doesn’t fix a laundry list of issues. It’s time for Obama to go. Pawlenty says that he doesn’t just talk about it; he gets the job done, as he did in Minnesota. He says that the Republicans need a candidate who doesn’t just preach to the choir but can bring independents on board, which he proved he could do in Minnesota. As Pawlenty finishes, his pit chants “T-Paw” as the answer to a series of call-and-response cheers, but I note that the enthusiasm doesn’t really spread to the stands.
Between Pawlenty and Bachmann, Senator Chuck Grassley speaks, looking and sounding very old but still capable of stirring up the passions of Iowans. The room is quiet and respectful of their Senator, erupting in the now-expected thunderous applause when he recommits to the Pro-Life position. To me, it’s sad to see how much of his vigor has faded in only a short time, and I find myself worrying more about his health than his politics.
Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann comes on stage screaming at us. “We’re going to do it!” she shouts. “Iowa will be the pace car…” until this metaphor collapses under clumsy phrasing. She practically demands that we love her, we really must. She stresses her Iowan roots, using the phrase “we Iowans” multiple times. Iowans like her apparently grew up with three principles to live by: Be honest, be truthful, do what you say, which are three ways of saying almost the same thing. She says we need the family to go forward, which is why she’s proud of Iowa Republicans for voting out three of the judges who ruled in favor of legalizing gay marriage in this state. She says there should be no shame in being a social conservative, and no fear of the faith that this nation was founded on, for Almighty God. She says she knows how to turn the economy around, but doesn’t say how except by turning a profit. She stands for the security and safety of all Americans, so together we can forge the next link on the chain of liberty, because we are the team that can’t be beat.
Congressman Tom Latham takes the stage between Bachmann and McCotter. Unfortunately for Rep. Latham, about a third of the audience leaves with Bachmann, but he isn’t helped by his flat delivery, poor pacing, and lack of anything interesting to say. I think half of those who stayed fell asleep during his nine minutes on stage.
Congressman Thaddeus McCotter speaks next. If you’re wondering who he is, you’re not alone. For the first couple of minutes, most of the audience seems to think the Michigan Representative is just another “filler” speech, because he doesn’t even have a pit crew to cheer for him. But about two or three minutes into his speech, it’s as if the crowd wakes up and realizes he is a candidate. In typical Iowa form, they listen attentively and even give him polite yet sustained applause several times. McCotter says that this generation has a choice to make, whether to focus on jeopardy or seize opportunities. Self government is the ideal of America, and technology empowers us today “to extents undreamt in human history.” Government must be restructured for a twenty-first century reality, not just shrunk but redesigned. He speaks intelligently and articulately about various issues ranging from bank recapitalization, the Middle East, and China before closing with a promise that he won’t work for pundits but for you, the people.
With no need to switch out a McCotter pit crew, we move straight ahead to the final speaker, Herman Cain. His pit crew chants “Cain is Able” as he takes the stage, and the crowds who drifted away after Bachmann seem to have returned during the tail of McCotter’s speech, because the place is nearly packed again. Cain’s cadence catches the ear and calls everyone to listen. He says he doesn’t need to tell us what problems we face, so he’s going to spend his minutes telling us how to fix them. The first step, of course, is getting the right person in the White House. He (unselfishly) wants permanent zero tax rates on business and capital gains. We need to secure our borders and make sure we focus on the right problems to solve immigration. For our energy needs, we should be our own best customer rather than relying on the rest of the world, which seems to ignore the reality of how little we produce relative to our consumption. To close, he quotes from the Declaration of Independence. We can’t “pass freedom on in the bloodstream,” so it must be protected, or we’ll all be telling our grandkids what America used to be like. He doesn’t want to have that conversation with his granddaughter, and neither do you.
Aside from each candidate’s increasingly strenuous support of the Pro-Life viewpoint, criticism of Barack Obama, and endorsement of the Balanced Budget Amendment, the biggest applause lines of the day were:
|Santorum:||“America is a moral enterprise.”
We need “smart steps towards Energy Security.”
|Ron Paul:||We need to bring our troops home and stop wasting American lives.
“Can’t protect liberty by taking it away from the American people.” (re: Patriot Act)
“We’ve lost our enthusiasm for freedom. We need to restore freedom to America.”
|Pawlenty:||“Obama has no clue. He’s like a manure spreader in a wind storm.”
“Mr. President, get government off our backs!” (T-Paw! T-Paw!)
“Government by the people and of the people shall not perish!” (USA! USA!)
|Bachmann:||“Almighty God” and any reference to faith or conservative morals.
“Keep the fruits of your own labor.”
“We love the men and women in uniform.”
|McCotter:||“Democrats aren’t progressive, they’re regressive!”
“China is a threat. China is as wrong today as the USSR was in the 1980’s.”
“Sovereign Citizens should not pay the banks out of the fruit of their labors.”
“People wonder if our best days are behind. Do I matter anymore? You matter more than ever…because in your hands rest the true hope for change.”
|Herman Cain:||Zero taxes on capital gains, “permanently!”
“Transform the entitlement society into an empowerment society.”
“Stop giving money to our enemies!”
“There’s no Department of Happy in DC.”
“Put the United back in the USA.”
The main program finishes by about 3:15, which gives those who’ve waited about 45 minutes to go vote. Bear in mind that throughout the speaking portion of this event, there were never more than about seven or eight thousand inside the Coliseum, which means that at least half of the Straw Poll attendees were outside visiting tents and voting rather than listening to the speakers. The voting line is actually shorter after the speeches than it was earlier during the day.
To vote in the Ames Straw Poll, one must be a resident of Iowa over the age of eighteen (as of November 2012) with a valid state-issued ID and a $30 ticket to the event. Concerns about fraud and security were apparently high. Cameras were not allowed in the voting area, and volunteers strolled up and down the line reminding everyone to have their ticket and ID in hand. When I finally reach the door, an event staffer checks my drivers license and my ticket, then I’m sent inside where another volunteer again checks my id and ticket, then hands my ticket to a second volunteer who punches a hole in it before handing me a paper Scantron ballot.
Then, I proceed to wait in line for one of the booths to open. As I wait, I’m amused to note that there are obviously no rules about wearing campaign slogans in the voting area, as almost everyone is wearing a campaign t-shirt, cap, or sticker of some sort. Outside the windows to the left, we can see the Cain, Bachmann, McCotter, and Santorum tents. Outside and to the right are the Ron Paul tents. Perhaps Pawlenty will suffer in the voting by being “out of sight, out of mind” to voters as they prepare to mark their ballots?
Voting is simple. I use the felt-tip marker in the voting booth to fill the circle next to my choice, then walk my ballot down to one of the scanners and insert it. After I vote, three volunteers corral me towards the table where there are blue ink pads for me to press my thumb so that everyone will know I’ve voted. As a bonus, the blue ink on my thumb will get me extra freebees from some of the candidates.
That’s it! Now I’ve just got to wait until about 6:00 or so for them to announce the winner.
Finally, at around 6:30, Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn announces the results:
|6||Rick Perry (write-in)||718||4.3%|
Not too surprisingly, the final tally has Michelle Bachmann edging out Ron Paul to win the Straw Poll by a margin of 152 votes out of nearly 17,000 cast. This is essentially a tie, but I predict the media will virtually ignore poor Ron Paul. Pawlenty and Santorum, the two who tried the hardest, came in third and fourth. Those who thought Rick Perry would upset everything were probably disappointed with his measly 718 vote showing, but it’s hard to do well in an event like this without a concerted cross-state campaign. Of the non-attendees, both Romney and Gingrich managed better than McCain’s 0.7% from 2007, which probably means absolutely nothing.
In my preview of the Ames Straw Poll, I suggested that anything other than a win should be considered a loss for Tim Pawlenty, and I stand by that opinion. He devoted too much effort into this event for this distant third-place finish to give him any encouragement. It appears he agrees, since he announced yesterday that he’s dropping out of the race. Rick Santorum, on the other hand, despite finishing lower in this poll may actually be better positioned for a long-term campaign. The only thing certain is that Thaddeus McCotter is the loser today, because he placed worse than all three non-attendees and the write-in Perry.
Whew! I didn’t get back home until around 8:00 PM after an exhausting but fun day. Next time there’s a Straw Poll in Ames, you can bet I’ll be there again!
- Iowa Straw Poll Information (iowastrawpoll.org)
- Ames Straw Poll (wikipedia.org)
- Iowa GOP Straw Poll Means More to Some than Others (iowacaucus.com)
- Rockin’ Ames Straw Poll (politics.blogs.foxnews.com)
- Michele Bachmann wins Iowa straw poll, with Ron Paul a close second (philly.com)
- Ron Paul Wins Iowa Straw Poll !! (2012patriot.wordpress.com)
- Pawlenty Quits After Third-Place Straw Poll Finish (news.firedoglake.com)
- Ames straw poll results: Bachmann wins narrowly over Paul (hotair.com)
- Ames Straw Poll: The Complete Guide (huffingtonpost.com)
- The Iowa Straw Poll Mystery [218 votes are missing! — no surprise there — share the word! ] (jhaines6.wordpress.com)
- Ron Paul a close second in Ames straw poll (futuredispatch.com)
- Bachman wins Iowa straw poll; Paul No. 2 (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Steve Clemons: Iowa Straw Poll Takes a Dive (huffingtonpost.com)
- Michele Bachmann Wins Ames, Iowa Straw Poll (crooksandliars.com)
- This Grand Old Project
- Ballot Watch: Plains States
- Republican Convention: Day 3
- Republican Convention: Day 2
- The 2012 Republican Vice Presidential Field: July 23, 2012
- Nay of Newt
- Republican Delegate Counts: April 7
- Don’t Show Me
- Republican Delegate Counts: March 15
- The 2012 Republican Primary Field: March 8, 2012
About mclever (5 posts)
“Mac” is a software consultant living in a midwestern state full of cornfields. With degrees in math, music, and education, Mac claims to be an expert in nothing but interested in everything, especially sci-fi, sports, theology, music, politics, and competitive bridge. Probably has an opinion on any topic you pick. If not, Mac’ll think one up for you!