Iowa Straw Poll: Thompson, dignity first casualties of GOP race

The Washington Post’s Dan Balz may have a point about the Iowa Straw Poll. Blogging for The Trail, Balz points out that, “As political theater, it’s hard to beat the Iowa Republican straw poll,” and considers whether or not the gathering has run its course. Balz considers the fairground atmosphere, the free food and entertainment, vendors, and even attractions to keep the kids entertained that run from inflatable slides and moon bounces to an artificial, indoor rock-climbing wall. And the candidates themselves put on shows of their own; Ron Paul brought a fife and drum corps for the patriotic feel, while former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee followed in Bill Clinton’s footsteps with a more rock and roll presentation, playing bass for a rendition of Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild”. From afar, it sounds like a county fair atmosphere. All that’s missing from Balz’s description is the scones and the fortune-telling graphology computer.

Politically, however, what was missing from the famed poll in Ames seems more significant. Turnout was down this year, with a bit over 14,000 votes cast–compared to the 40,000 expected by GOP officials–while three candidates did not deign to make appearances.

For starters, turnout this year declined sharply from the 1999 straw poll. That year, more than 23,000 Iowans–only Iowans are allowed to vote, though anyone is welcome to come to Ames–cast ballots. On Saturday, only 14,302 votes were cast. Why should an event that draws only 14,000 people be given the significance the straw poll receives.

Next, this year’s contest was notable as much for who didn’t participate as who did. Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Fred Thompson all chose not to compete actively. Their opponents say the reason is they feared a poor finish would damage their candidacies. There’s some truth in that, but it begs the question: if three of the top four candidates in national polls are not competing, how meaningful is the prize?

Additionally, Balz considers a 1999 article by David Broder that questioned why Iowa, already a determined bellwether in the presidential field, should have get two swipes at the candidates. After all, part of the rush among states to move up their primary and caucus dates comes from the feeling that, all told, their votes didn’t really count; a late primary is a necessary gesture to the people, but is generally looked upon merely as a process to affirm the inevitable.

Indeed, the Ames poll has already struck its first blow, with former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson dropping out of the race after his poor showing. That’s the power of a fraction of Iowa’s registered voters some five months before the contest begins in earnest.

There is another reason, though, to reconsider the status and necessity of the Straw Poll ritual: it embarrasses Iowa, the Midwest in general, and that nebulous concept so powerful in 2004, “middle America”. The swath of red that covered the midwestern portion of the American voting map was derided as “Jesusland” in the wake of a difficult election. The “middle America” platform, in a year allegedly focused on terrorism and the Iraqi Bush War, was described as “God, guns, and gays”. And to top it off, the region demonstrated its taste for character assassination and affirmed anti-Kerry crusader Paul Galanti’s implicit assertion that truth is un-American.

This year, we need only look at the results to wonder what is going on in Iowa. While Mitt Romney came away the clear and expected winner at 31.6%, the anti-Catholic campaign run by Mike Huckabee placed second with a strong 18.1%. Dan Balz notes that Huckabee’s stature has raised considerably despite low spending in Iowa; a recent ABC News-Washington Post poll put Huckabee at only 8%. To the other, though, Iowans are not uniformly haters of Catholicism. Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, the target of the Huckabee campaign’s slurs against the world’s billion-plus Catholics, drew just under 2,200 votes, enough to place third with 15.3% of the vote.

Fourth place is even more bizarre: Colorado Representative Tom “The Mad Bomber” Tancredo drew 13.7% of the vote. Apparently, nuking Saudi Arabia sounds like a good idea to many Iowans. Hizzoner Giuliani finished miserably, with less than a fifth of dropout Thompson’s total, and McCain continued his familiar crash and burn, netting less than 1%.

Given that Iowans launched the candidacy of George W. Bush to prominence in 1999 with the Straw Poll, one must wonder about the wisdom of the event. Do Iowa Republicans really feel that strongly about Catholics? Is the idea of obliterating Muslim holy sites in Saudi Arabia really anything more than marginal? On the one hand, it’s hard to believe that the state’s entire delegations of Catholic-haters and nuclear-war proponents turned out to vote in the Straw Poll, but the result is difficult to ignore. Romney was an easy call, but Huckabee and Tancredo? Is this an ideology that the GOP is comfortable with?

Hello, “middle America”? What the hell is going on over there? The rest of Iowa ought to be horrified, or at least embarrassed.