Texas Governor George W. Bush came out of his handy victory in the GOP Presidential Straw Poll crowing that he “was now on the road to the nomination” and that the conventionlike balloting was a “festival of democracy.” He’s dead right on the first count. But as to the second–well, the Ames poll had about as much to do with democracy as Duffy Lyon’s sculpture of the Last Supper carved in butter over at the Iowa State Fair did with Leonardo’s original.
The Ames poll was modern politics at its worst. Twenty-five thousand predominantly white electors were bused in and then lured by free barbecues, T-shirts and concerts into casting an unofficial “vote” for whatever candidate paid their $25-a-head entrance fee.
A farce? Certainly. But at the same time an accurate, and markedly less hypocritical, microcosm of the official electoral process. Both are essentially about money. George W. Bush spent upward of a cool million to win his 31 percent. Steve Forbes spent twice as much to take second with 20 percent. Even the lesser candidates, like Christian-right leader Gary Bauer (who finished fourth with 9 percent) spent more than a quarter-million dollars on the event. Bauer leased fifteen golf carts just to whisk his supporters from his barbecue and gospel tent to the voting booths a few hundred yards up the hill.
Contrary to the official media consensus, this poll wasn’t really about winnowing from year 2000 competition such obvious losers as Lamar Alexander and Dan Quayle (though it succeeded in the former case). For there is no such competition. After the humiliating defeat of the Gingrich leadership in the ’98 Congressional vote, the Republican Party elite, led by frightened governors and backed by deep-pocket corporate contributors, decided to jerk the party back into the moderate mainstream.
With abnormally early blanket endorsement from hundreds of GOP elected officials down to the level of county dogcatcher, with nearly $40 million to date in financial support from more than 300 PACs and corporations ranging from GE to Bank of America to Waste Management, and with individual contributions from thousands of business executives, George W. Bush has drowned all other comers in both a sea of green and overwhelming media attention. Barring a Bush plane crash or an unlikely political train wreck, the “contenders” who survived the Ames poll will be allowed only to act out their supporting roles in a yearlong national charade culminating in next summer’s formal convention-cum-coronation of George W. Bush, the undisputed nominee to lead the party away from the fringe and back into the White House. While the results of the Ames poll did nothing to alter this inevitability, it did provide a revealing window onto the strengths and fissures of a Bush-led GOP looking toward next year’s general election.