Thursday, June 07, 2007

Rudy disses the Iowa hustle

Rudy Giuliani has performed a valuable public service. He declared yesterday that he will skip the Iowa Straw Poll, a Republican summer ritual that has long deserved to be exposed for what it really is – a con job.

Iowa Republicans have been staging this event since 1979, and for some inexplicable reason it has become a fixture on the political calendar, even though it is little more than a fund-raising hustle for the state GOP, and even though the presidential candidates who have scored well in the straw poll generally don’t wind up in the White House unless they have a visitor’s pass.

But Giuliani isn’t skipping out because he thinks the August event is phony. It’s strictly a political decision. He knows that rival Mitt Romney is making a serious financial and organizational bid to “win” the non-binding skirmish, and that his own standing in Iowa is weak, in part because the conservatives who dominate the GOP caucuses might be wary of his liberal views on social issues. He figures that it’d be smart to just de-emphasize Iowa and focus on the big states that are voting early next year (Florida, New York, California). And that means skipping the straw poll – a ballyhooed prelude to the winter Iowa caucuses – and thus pre-spinning a Romney “victory” as meaningless. (John McCain decided yesterday that he would skip the straw poll, as well.)

Giuliani advisor Jim Nussle, an Iowan, told reporters yesterday, “It’s not a serious event in the grand scheme of picking a nominee.” Obviously, he was aiming at Romney, but he had the added advantage of being accurate. He said that the straw poll “is not a demographic cross-section of the state,” which sounds about right, given the fact that the event typically attracts two percent of all registered Republican Iowa voters.

By tradition, the winner is the candidate who can most effectively buy the most votes. That is literally how it works. Any Iowan who wants to show up and participate must first pay a $30 fee to the Iowa GOP, but that never happens – because the candidates always vie to pick up the tabs. The candidates also provide free bus service to the event, held in the town of Ames. The candidates also spend up to $3 million apiece to ply their “voters” with food and drink and all manner of apolitical allure – swing dancers, skeet shooters, barbecuers, celebrity crooners, you name it. As I recall about the ’99 event, candidate Orrin Hatch brought in Vic Damone to sing on his behalf.

But what I remember best about ’99 was that the Iowans were very happy with self-funding candidate Steve Forbes, because Forbes had installed air conditioning inside his hospitality tent. He was the only candidate who had AC. He also bankrolled the equivalent of a small amusement park for the kiddies. Sure enough, he finished a strong second in the straw poll – a fact that ultimately meant nothing, because he was virtually gone from the race once the real voting began six months later. In the competition to become the chief alternative to candidate George W. Bush, Forbes was quickly eclipsed that winter by John McCain…who didn’t bother to show up at the ’99 straw poll, dismissing it as a “sham” and a “financial arms race.”

Elizabeth Dole showed up for the ’99 straw poll. Remember her candidacy? It peaked on that hot summer day. She finished third in the tally (14 percent of the purchased votes), and everyone started buzzing about the possibility of a serious female contender. But she was gone by autumn, after it became obvious that Bush was vacuuming up most of the serious donor money.

The history of the Iowa straw poll is replete with stuff like that. The senior George Bush won the first event, in 1979, beating Ronald Reagan – but it was the latter who won the 1980 primaries, with Bush as the junior player on the ticket. Care to guess who won the 1987 straw poll? That would be Pat Robertson, the Christian conservative leader, who apparently had no clout with God when the real voting began in the winter of ’88. And the big news of the 1995 straw poll was that Phil Gramm, the Texas senator, finished in a tie for first place. Yet within six months, Gramm’s candidacy was history.

George W. Bush is the only GOP nominee to ever win the Iowa straw poll – he won 31 percent of the purchased votes in 1999 – but he was already viewed that summer as the prohibitive frontrunner. The ’08 race is far more competitive, unusually so for the GOP, and Romney would have been able to spin an August victory more convincingly if his two chief rivals had chosen to join the circus.

Romney is trying to spin it, nevertheless. The meaningless vote tally is still two months away, but a Romney spokesman offered this yesterday: “Campaigns that have decided to abandon Ames are likely doing so out of a recognition that their organizations are outmatched and their message falls flat with Republican voters in Iowa. It looks as if we just beat those campaigns in Iowa two months earlier than we had planned on beating them."

Whatever. As the New York columnist Jimmy Breslin once wrote, "All political power is primarily an illusion...Mirrors and blue smoke, beautiful blue smoke rolling over the surface of highly polished mirrors...The ability to create the illusion of power, to use mirrors and blue smoke, is one found in unusual people."