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Iowa straw poll nothing more than a field of hype

By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 8, 1999


In the movies, Kevin Costner built a baseball diamond in an Iowa cornfield to fulfill his dream.

Saturday, Iowans host another fantasy.

The first presidential straw poll is hyped by many politicians and pundits as the most important political event of the year. You might as well call the Tampa Bay Bucs' first preseason game the Super Bowl.

The results will be meaningless and quickly forgotten by everybody outside Des Moines or Dubuque.

The straw poll is legalized vote buying. It is a fundraiser for the state Republican Party that plays to the fears of candidates desperate for validation in the state that holds the first election-year caucuses.

Campaigns will round up every breathing body they can. They will bus them to Iowa State University on Saturday, where they will feed them hamburgers and barbecue and entertain them with music, face painting and who knows what else. They will pay their $25 admission to the Hilton Coliseum and hope their investment pays off in a vote.

For days afterward, the candidates who do unexpectedly well will claim momentum. Those who do poorly will suddenly see the light and write off the results as insignificant.

The instant analysis by the talking heads on cable television is just as predictable.

Did George W. Bush crush the field to reaffirm himself as the front-runner, as if $37-million in contributions and countless polls haven't already told us that?

Will Dan Quayle or Lamar Alexander do so poorly that they will be forced out of the race, as if they have done anything yet to show they belong?

Will Patrick Buchanan quit the GOP in frustration and become the Reform Party's candidate, as if that would give him a better shot at the presidency?

Real elections decided by regular voters often don't have as much impact as the expectations for this vote-buying charade.

To be fair, Iowa has cleaned up its act.

Four years ago, you didn't even have to be from Iowa to vote in the straw poll. Phil Gramm and Alexander flew in supporters from other states, and Bob Dole brought in bus loads of folks from across the state lines.

Saturday, participants will have to produce a driver's license or other ID photo to prove they are Iowa residents. That's good. But they don't have to be Republicans to vote. That's bad. Think what mischief 1,000 Democrats with nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon could create. They could take the Republicans' money, eat their food, dance to their music and vote for Gary Bauer.

If there is any value to the straw poll for voters who do not live within sight of an Iowa cornfield, it might offer some gauge of the grass-roots organizations the candidates have assembled in the first caucus state. But getting a relatively small number of supporters to come to Ames in August is not the same as coaxing them out on a cold snowy night in January.

It is not even on the same scale. There are roughly a half-million Iowa Republicans. Maybe 100,000 will attend the caucuses, which actually count for something. But Saturday's straw poll should only draw about 15,000 Iowans of all types. And many of them will cast their ballots before hearing the 10-minute speeches each candidate is allowed to give.

From this spectacle we're going to decide who is a viable candidate for president and who isn't?

Of all people, Bush ought to know how little correlation there is between the straw poll and the actual votes. His father won the straw poll in 1979 and the Iowa caucuses the following year, but Ronald Reagan won the nomination.

In 1995, Gramm spent $800,000 to buy a tie with Bob Dole in the straw poll. The Texas senator finished in the rear of the pack in the caucuses and was out of the race weeks before the Florida primary.

Yet Republicans have lost sight of those cold facts in their scramble to impress.

Bush paid $43,000 to the Iowa GOP for a prime spot outside the arena for his supporters. Steve Forbes is bringing barbecue. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah is bringing basketball star Karl Malone and pianist Roger Williams.

But the best strategy belongs to Sen. John McCain of Arizona. He calls spending 25 bucks for each vote in a straw poll a "meaningless exercise." He is the only Republican who won't be in Ames on Saturday.

"I congratulate them for the scam," McCain said on MSNBC last week. "But I don't have to take part in it, and it isn't going to make a wit of difference once the caucuses and the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries come up."

He's right.

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