By Ernest Corea*
WASHINGTON D.C. (IDN) - A country-fair style fundraiser serving also as the occasion for a "straw poll" staged by the Republican Party in Ames, Iowa was non-binding, and produced no votes in the party's primaries for candidates with presidential aspirations, but had a direct impact on the political standing of two candidates from Minnesota.
In the past, Minnesota produced respected political leaders such as Rudy Boschwitz, Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, Walter Mondale and Paul Wellstone.
They all had impeccable credentials in both domestic and foreign affairs. Humphrey and Mondale served as Vice Presidents. Boschwitz was a highly regarded expert on Asian affairs in the U.S. Senate.
Humphrey, McCarthy, and Mondale had presidential aspirations and all three were well suited for that responsibility but none of them made the grade. This time around, one of the Minnesota candidates, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, reached the top of the straw heap and acquired a new political stature – at least in Iowa – while the other, former Governor Tim Pawlenty, placed third out of 10, and decided to call it a day.
BY THE NUMBERS
The final tally was Michele Bachmann – 4,823 votes (28.6 percent), Ron Paul – 4,671 (27.7), Tim Pawlenty – 2,293 (13.6), Rick Santorum – 1,657 (9.8), Herman Cain – 1,456 (8.6), Rick Perry – 718 (4.3) Mitt Romney 567 (3.4), Newt Gingrich – 385 (2.3), Jon Huntsman – 69 (0.4), and Thadeus McCotter – 35 (0.2).
The figures clearly show that of the nationally known contenders Perry, Romney, Gingrich, and Huntsman fared much worse than Pawlenty. So why should he quit, and not any one of them?
Perry, Governor of Texas, and Romney, former Governor of Massachusetts, were not on the ballot and did not directly campaign in Iowa. Their names were written into the ballot by supporters. Neither Gingrich, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, nor Jon Huntsman, former U.S. Ambassador to China, was given a "snowball's chance in hell" of doing better than either of them did.
As for Pawlenty, he put everything he had into the "straw poll" campaign but came up short. Recognising defeat takes both wisdom and courage. Pawlenty's withdrawal in a public statement showed, for the first time in this campaign, that he has both. He was a lacklustre figure at campaign stops, however, and nobody was surprised when the ‘straw poll” results reaffirmed that this election is not for him.
As soon as the results were known he informed key supporters in a conference call that he would be withdrawing from the race and subsequently acknowledged on the ABC television network's Sunday political talk show This Week that he was pulling out. He said: "I wish it had been different. But, obviously, the pathway forward for me doesn’t exist. And so we’re going to end the campaign."
When Bachmann – the founder of the 'Tea Party Caucus' of the United States House of Representatives – reached the top of the "straw poll" heap, the public media immediately transformed her from a seriously gaffe-prone tea party-goer to a serious candidate in the top ranks of Republican hopefuls. An endowment of "gravitas" is surely on its way.
Throughout the campaign, she presented herself as a much more serious and disciplined candidate than she appeared to be as a politicking congresswoman, with a capacity to remain unruffled by criticism, to move cheerfully from one misleading statement to another, and to remain steadfastly "on message."
Bachmann ascribed her triumph directly to a higher power saying in a victory speech that "God has mightily put his hand, a blessing upon this nation. We can never think we did this ourselves. It was an Almighty God that gave it to us."
This must put the heavenly hosts in something of a bind. For the supporters of two other candidates are also convinced that "their guys" are running out of deference to orders from above.
IN THE WIND
Meanwhile, what does a "straw poll" achieve, you ask, as do many others, and does that matter?
"Straw polls" are an informal means of testing public opinion, and are considered the forebears of today's allegedly scientific polls. The first crack at such easygoing polling is credited to the Harrisburg Pennsylvanian newspaper in 1824.
Polls have come a long way since then. They have sometimes predicted the future accurately. And sometimes they have been misleading. Later and even contemporary polls with carefully calculated samplings of voters, and expertly crafted questionnaires, have been sensationally wrong, too, as when they predicted that Thomas Dewey would defeat Harry S. Truman.
George Herbert Walker Bush won the Ioawa "straw poll" in 1985, but Ronald Reagan was the Republican candidate and won the presidency. Bush, on the other hand, lost the straws to Pat Robertson in 1988 but was selected as the Republican candidate and won the presidency. Mitt Romney sat atop Iowa's straw in 2008, but John Mc Cain became the party’s candidate – and lost the presidential election to Barack Obama.
The reference to straw is believed to draw on the experience of farmers who reportedly throw straw into the air to check in which direction the wind is blowing, and how fierce it is, before they sow seed. Some contemporary commentators argue that although a "straw poll" is less than consequential it can point the way to more important developments that could follow.
Candidates participating in the Ames "straw pol" pay for the privilege. The location on which candidates pitch their tents to accommodate supporters is based on bidding. Participants are charged an entrance fee of $30 each. This year Congressman Ron Paul of Texas acquired the best tent site – at a cost of $31,000, paid to the Republican Party of Iowa.
The true significance of the coming-out party in Ames lies in five areas. The capacity of each candidate to increase his/her bidding to great heights for the most favoured real estate on which to pitch a tent demonstrates his/her prowess at fund raising. The ability of a candidate's team to round up a sizeable number of voters, arrange for their admission fees to be paid, and bring them to the site of the "straw poll" is an indication of how well or poorly a campaign is managed.
The skill of the candidates in public speaking as they appeal to all voters signals what the party and its opponents can expect of him/her as the primaries and then the main campaign rolls on.
For candidates such as Perry and Romney, the fact that their names were inserted as write-ins on the ballot and that they survived to battle another day, and more to come, is a special bonus. Finally, the numbers polled do give some indication of popularity, and either boost a candidates standing or knock it down.
There are now four leading candidates as the Republican primary season moves on: Bachmann, Paul, Perry, and Romney. The first three appeal to roughly the same segment of the Republican base. At the Iowa "straw poll" those votes split themselves between the first two candidates, but Perry's capacity to appeal to that same crowd is not to be under-estimated.
Meanwhile, life must go on. The country has jobs to create, debts to pay, revenues to seek, legislative compromises to develop and even, alas, wars to continue fighting.
In this daunting situation, some Republicans have urged President Barack Obama to recall the legislature from its summer break and ask them to work at job creation. These enthusiasts obviously disregard the views of Gordon J. Tucker, founder of the New York Daily News, repeated by Mark Twain, that "no man's life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session." Let’s hope for better days ahead. (IDN-InDepthNews/16.08.2011)
Copyright © 2010 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters
*The writer has served as Sri Lanka's ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon 'Daily News' and the Ceylon 'Observer', and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore 'Straits Times'. He is Global Editor of IDN-InDepthNews and a member of its editorial board as well as President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council.
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