Analysis: Democracy alive and well in Iowa
By Bill Press/CNN
August 17, 1999
Web posted at: 12:18 p.m. EDT (1618 GMT)
WASHINGTON -- Here's something you won't hear me say very often: I was wrong.
As one of over 600 journalists who went to Ames, Iowa, last weekend to cover the Iowa straw poll, I was convinced it was all a waste of time. It had no official standing. It was nothing but a con job, a huge fund-raiser for the Iowa Republican Party. Only 1 percent of Iowa's Republicans were expected to participate. Candidates lured supporters to Ames with free transportation, free T-shirts, free barbecue, free entertainment and free $25 tickets. John McCain didn't even show up.
The Iowa straw poll was a big joke. Right? That's what I thought before I went to Ames. But I was wrong.
Please, don't read that as a blanket endorsement for straw polls. They don't prove anything. They don't represent a cross-section of voters. And they're too easy to manipulate with big spending, as Steve Forbes proved in Ames.
But, with all it's built-in faults, the Iowa straw poll produced some important, immediate results. It narrowed the field. It defined the race. It sharpened the challenge. And, besides, it was fun!
Before Ames, there were ten Republican candidates for president. After Ames, there are really only five. To his credit, Lamar Alexander was the first to accept the inevitable and bow out. If they had any sense, Dan Quayle and Orrin Hatch would do the same. Alan Keyes will continue, only as an asterisk. Pat Buchanan's only hope to be on the ticket is, more and more, to find another ticket.
The only serious candidates left standing are: George W. Bush, Steve Forbes, Elizabeth Dole and Gary Bauer. And, of course, John McCain -- who may only make the list because he had enough sense not to compete in the straw poll and thus guarantee his own post-Ames survivability.
Before Ames, the Republican primary was an undefined free-for-all. Now, it's clearly become two contests in one: What direction will the party take in 2000? And who will lead it?
Fighting for the mainstream: George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole.
George W. Bush won the straw poll. He's still the front-runner. But Bush now faces a strong challenge from Elizabeth Dole. She defied the odds. With the help of a lot of new faces in politics, excited by the prospect of electing the first woman president, she scored a surprising third place. She was the big winner in the straw poll. Bush and Dole now compete to lead the party in a more centrist, pragmatic direction.
Fighting for the conservative mantle: Steve Forbes and Gary Bauer.
An economic conservative, now turned social conservative, Steve Forbes spent $400 per vote last Saturday. Not surprisingly, he bought second place. The big surprise was Gary Bauer, who went into Ames wanting to emerge as the leading candidate of the Republican religious right. With relatively little money, but an impressive grass-roots organization, he succeeded. Bauer's the second big straw poll winner. He and Forbes now compete to lead the party in a more conservative direction.
So, now we see the Republican primary more clearly. It's pragmatic vs. conservative. It's Bush vs. Dole. And Forbes vs. Bauer. With John McCain somewhere in the mix. For that focus alone, the Ames straw poll was worthwhile.
But Ames proved something else. It proved that politics is still exciting. And fun.
The very fact that 25,000 Iowans were willing to leave their homes, take a long bus ride to Ames and spend an entire hot, summer Saturday listening to political speeches is astounding. I'm not sure I would do that. Not even to hear a bunch of liberals. And I'm a political junkie!
But these people didn't just show up. They had a great time. I talked to a lot of them. They were excited to be there. Sure, they loved the music, the food, the color, the hoopla and all the media attention. But, most of all, they believed in their candidates and their issues. And they believed they were doing something important. Which they were. Something like helping Americans decide who should be the Republican nominee for President. That's worth a Saturday and that's worth a straw poll.
So, I was wrong. This widely-ridiculed Iowa straw poll turned out to be pretty meaningful, after all.
Democracy is alive and well. At least, in Iowa.
Bill Press is co-host of CNN's "Crossfire".