Hopefuls grasp straws in Iowa

By David M. Shribman, Globe Staff, June 29, 1999

WEST DES MOINES, Iowa -- This is going to be a busy summer in Iowa. There's the ice-cream social in Lidtke Mill, the tractor square dance in Nemaha, the puckerbrush celebration in Forest City, and the buckskinners' rendezvous in Bellevue. And don't forget Watermelon Days in Humeston, Threshing Days in Miles, Pioneer Days in Milford, and Ridiculous Days in Mason City.

But by far the most colorful event -- by far the most ridiculous day -- is scheduled for the ordinarily sober university town of Ames on Aug. 14. That's when the Republican Party holds its Iowa Straw Poll.

No convention delegates will be chosen that day. No voters will be swayed. But the campaigns are pouring in money and time anyway, all in the hope of winning some small advantage in a contest that even its organizers acknowledge is conducted mainly as a gimmick to raise funds for the state party.

In the annals of dumb things that politicians do, the Iowa Straw Poll is a leading example, right up there with eating lutefisk in Minnesota and wearing yarmulkes or Indian headdresses or New York Yankee baseball caps.

Here's a quick sketch of this monumental event:

In the second week of August, when normal people are fishing or boating and otherwise enjoying the outdoors, more than 10,000 people will voluntarily go to a meeting indoors.

They will spend $25 of their hard-earned money on an admission ticket that permits them to vote in a meaningless tally.

The candidates who have spent months trying to display their sound judgment will fight each other over such weighty matters as the best site for their campaign tents.

Consultants who are paid unimaginable fees will conspire to get around the rules regulating where, how big, and for how long campaign banners may be hung in a basketball arena.

Reporters will jeopardize their diminishing supply of dignity by recording the results soberly.

The reasons this event is more ridiculous than anything that will happen on Ridiculous Days in Mason City are clear: No rules against paying people to vote. No rules against sending busloads of supporters to Ames. No correlation between winning the straw poll and winning the nomination.

The winner of the 1983 Wisconsin Democratic Straw Poll? Senator Alan Cranston of California. He performed so poorly in New Hampshire that more Democrats wrote in Ronald Reagan's name than checked the box beside Cranston's name. The winner of the 1987 Iowa Republican Straw Poll? The Rev. Pat Robertson. He didn't become president. A co-winner of the 1995 Iowa Republican Straw Poll? Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, whose campaign died a week after the Iowa caucuses.

And yet the candidates already are organizing furiously. The other day aides to Governor George W. Bush of Texas asked 50 big political organizations and companies each to designate 15 Iowans and dispatch them to the straw poll by charter bus.

Bush toyed with skipping the spectacle, which would have relegated the event to the obscurity it so richly deserves, but instead he vowed to compete -- and win. Now anything short of a decisive victory will be regarded by the handicappers as a serious blow to a campaign that hasn't even been formally announced.

"Bush's decision makes this bigger than ever," says former vice president Dan Quayle. "He presumes he'll walk right in there and get 45 percent in the poll. We'll see."

Former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, low on funds, has boasted of his organizational prowess in Iowa. A weak showing in the meaningless straw poll could render his campaign meaningless.

"You can't say this isn't significant," says Gary Bauer, the conservative social activist running for president. "It at least measures organization ability. The down side of it is that you can 'buy' a straw poll, and a few candidates will do that. They'll pay people to come -- offer bounties to them."

The dustbin of history

Marching in step

The straw poll is social pressure writ large, a bit like a high school dance. The candidates are there because the other candidates are there.

The only candidate skipping the event is Senator John McCain of Arizona, who prides himself on being a loner anyway. The rest will be here, making sure no rival has broken the rules by hanging a banner over one of the air ducts or unfurling a wall sign bigger than 54 inches wide by 42 inches tall.

"It is a good test of who's running strong and who needs a wake-up call," says Ann Dougherty, the spokeswoman for the Iowa Republican Party. Maybe. But maybe the people who take seriously a group of party loyalists meeting in the middle of the summer a year before an election are the ones who need the wake-up call.