On the day before the recent GOP straw poll, most of the Republican presidential candidates cruised the fabled Iowa State Fair grounds, competing for attention among the vendors hawking pork-chops-on-a-stick, deep-fried Twinkies, pickle dawgs and funnel cakes under a sweltering late-summer sun. Taking refuge inside the air-conditioned Varied Industries Building, and squeezed among displays of tractors, sewing machines, ATVs and portable oxygen tanks, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was doing some hawking of his own, autographing copies of his new novel about Pearl Harbor.
Since the crowds were more attracted to a free pull on a slot machine at a nearby booth, Newt was more than happy to chat about the current election environment–though “happy” would not be the most precise descriptor. More like glum. “The country is so very unhappy with this Administration,” Gingrich said, “that if the Republican candidates stay within the current pattern, it’s going to be very, very tough. They’re going to have to learn from [French President] Sarkozy and make a clean break from the past, or else they’re going to be in a world of trouble.”
When asked what he meant by clean break, Newt punted, inviting me to find the answers during a series of workshops he would be sponsoring the next day at the Ames straw poll. Gingrich’s pessimism about the immediate Republican future was readily confirmed during the poll–and not just by the sparse turnout for his seminars but by the outcome of the circuslike straw poll, which is held whenever a Republican incumbent isn’t running for re-election.
Sure, it’s easy to mock the poll: The Republican faithful are bused to the Iowa State University campus from all over the state by the candidates, or else lured by the sprawl of campaign tents serving barbecue, live music, games for the kiddies and a three-hour gabfest of candidate speeches–and, for a mere $35 (often paid for by one of the campaigns), the right to “vote” for the one you like. Even right-wing radio host Laura Ingraham, who served as this year’s host of the candidates’ forum, called the straw poll “Iowa’s version of American Idol.”
Top candidates like George W. Bush, who won eight years ago, and this year’s victor, Mitt Romney, spend enormous sums of money on the show, erecting huge tents and stages, hiring dozens of buses, carting in tons of food and–in Romney’s case–providing a fleet of golf carts and wheelchairs to ferry voters from the parking lots to the food lines to the voting lines. (Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, who placed third, had his campaign staffers check to make sure people had voted before allowing them into his “free” food lines.)
But for all its tinfoil folly, the poll–often contrary to the wishes of its Iowa organizers–can reveal much more than just which candidate has the best organization and therefore the leg up on Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, now only four months away. The breakneck acceleration of the primary season, with as much as half the electorate now scheduled to vote by February 5, has robbed Iowa of some of its glamour. But only some–candidates of both parties are reticent to write off the Hawkeye State. And some, like Romney on the GOP side and Edwards for the Democrats, see Iowa as a veritable make-or-break battleground.