The GOP presidential race after Ames
By Stuart Rothenberg
August 17, 1999
Web posted at: 10:08 a.m. EDT (1408 GMT)
Texas Gov. George Bush's 10-point, 2,500-vote victory over second-place
finisher Steve Forbes reinforces the view that he is the clear front-
runner and favorite to win the nomination. His 7,418 votes easily
shattered the previous record of 2,582 votes by the 1995 co-winners, Bob Dole and Phil Gramm.
But the governor's showing -- a less than overwhelming 31 percent
-- demonstrates that he still is in a battle to win the GOP nomination.
Forbes and Dole will be emboldened by their showings. Forbes is
emerging as the conservative alternative to Bush, and Dole remains
a factor with her solid third place finish.
Some Republicans, particularly those loyal to Forbes, are insisting
that Bush's showing was far below expectations and, therefore, a
blow to the governor's campaign. But history and logic argue otherwise.
There have been three previous Iowa straw polls, though the rules
and circumstances in all three have been different. The 1979 event
didn't include the front runner, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush
won the poll with just under 1,500 votes (or about 36% of the total
cast). In 1987, Pat Robertson beat a sitting vice president (George
Bush) and a senator from a neighboring state (Bob Dole of Kansas).
Eight years later, Sen. Dole, who was expected to win easily, tied
for the lead with Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas.
In other words, front runners have had problems in the straw poll,
almost certainly because the event places a premium on organization
and intensity of candidate support (which in turn, is frequently
motivated by the candidates' support for particular "hot button"
issues), not mere name recognition.
Back in the spring, every Republican candidate wanted Bush in the
straw poll, figuring that he hadn't spent enough time organizing
or appearing in the state, and that his relatively moderate style
(and broad appeal) wouldn't translate well to the low turnout straw poll.
Considering the amount of time candidates like Alexander and Bauer
had spent in the state, the amount of money that Forbes spent, and
the exposure that Buchanan, Keyes and Alexander had gained by participating
in previous Iowa straw polls and caucuses, Bush was not in an overwhelmingly
strong position going into this year's Ames event.
The Texas governor's 31 percent showing fell below Robertson's 34 percent showing in 1987, but significantly above Bob Dole's and Grams's 24 percent co-victories in 1995. Given the size of this year's Straw Vote field - and the money and energy put in by other candidates - Bush's showing was credible. Not overwhelming, but not weak, either.
Forbes's supporters respond that since Bush won 31 percent of those attending
this year's event in Ames, he was rejected by almost 69 percent of the
participants. More importantly, the Bush campaign briefly talked
about aiming for the 50 percent mark, creating an expectation against which his showing must be measured.
But if you are going to point to the people who rejected Bush, you'd
also have to point out that Forbes was rejected by just under 80 percent
of straw poll participants, Dole was rejected by almost 86 percent, and
fourth-place finisher Gary Bauer was rejected by over 91 percent.
As for the 50 percent Bush target, that figure didn't strike most people
(or most reporters) as realistic. And yet, it wasn't all that far
off the mark in at least one respect. Bush attracted 7,418 votes
at the Ames event, and that would have been close to 50 percent if the
total number of participants had ranged between 12,000 and 15,000
straw poll voters, as many initially expected.
Okay, now the straw poll is history. Now what?
One of the interesting questions is what fourth place finisher Gary
Bauer will do. While all of the Republican hopefuls who remain in
the race after Ames will naturally focus their attention on the
front runner, the former Reagan Administration official may well have to go after Forbes.
If Bauer's performance in Ames is any indication, he's painted himself
into a corner, relying almost totally on pro-life, Christian Right
activists. If Forbes succeeds in becoming Bush's opponent on the
right, Bauer becomes irrelevant. The former head of the Family Research
Council can't allow that to happen, so it will be interesting to
see whether Bauer seeks to paint Forbes as a rich kid from the establishment
who has changed his views over the last four years for political reasons.
Forbes would prefer to have Bauer, Buchanan and the other conservatives
out of the race as soon as possible. But Forbes can't criticize
other conservatives without risking alienating their supporters,
and his sights will surely be set on the Texas governor. It will
be interesting to see how soon his attacks on Bush become more frequent and more pointed.
Mrs. Dole will also have to figure out what to do next. She insists
that she doesn't want to be just a "women's candidate," but her
appeal seems to rest largely on her gender. On one hand, she seems
unlikely to overtake Bush pursuing her existing campaign plan. But
as long as she is in the race, she squeezes Bush from the center
at the same time that Forbes and Bauer are squeezing him from the right.
Bush insiders insist that the governor's victory in the straw poll
ratifies the correctness of their message and strategy, so I doubt
that we'll see much change out of Bush. But he still needs to walk
a tight rope on issues - including taxes, abortion and school choice
- and he'll undoubtedly have to deal with the criticism from opponents
and some journalists that he's a lightweight who's not up to the
job of being president of the United States.
Buchanan is faced with a stark choice: leave the GOP for a third
party presidential effort, or stay with the Republicans knowing
that he was no better than conservatives' third choice in Ames.
His straw poll share dropped from 1995 to 1999, suggesting that
the former Reagan speechwriter has nowhere else to go but down nationally.
Buchanan's supporters during the straw poll seemed to be most energized
by the former television host's message of economic nationalism,
not by his social issue conservatism. That limits his appeal within
the GOP (since many economic nationalists are either Democrats or
followers of Ross Perot), giving him further reason to consider
an exit from the Republican race, as well as from the Republican Party.
The only Republican not to participate in Ames, Sen. John McCain,
is neither entirely better nor worse off after Ames. Dole's credible
showing means that three centrist contenders remain in the race,
but that probably doesn't change McCain's overall strategy. The
Arizona senator is still hoping to "hang around" in the race to
take any advantage of a Bush implosion.
Dan Quayle's suggestion that his showing in Ames doesn't matter
and that he is preparing for the "real" test in the caucuses is
preposterous. The longer he stays in the race, the more likely he is to embarrass himself.
In a sense, the Ames straw poll didn't change very much. We thought
Bush was the front runner, and he finished first. We thought Forbes
would emerge as the serious conservative challenger, and Iowa suggests
that that's what is happening. Dole got a boost, and Bauer probably
got enough oxygen to stay active. McCain, of course, ducked the
fight. Everyone else is now largely irrelevant.
On to the caucuses.