Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Ames Straw Finger in the Wind

“It’s a fraud, but ... it’s a lovely fraud,” Michael Gartner told Bloomberg News’ Al Hunt on Saturday, referencing the Ames Straw Poll. And Gartner should know. The former editor of the Des Moines Register, and a general old/new media visionary who’s done this rodeo before, thus cut to the chase about the informal Republican popularity contest and debating match that since 1979 has been Iowa’s first hard look at the GOP’s presidential contenders.

How seriously to believe the numbers from this canvass of Republican diehards, of course, depends on how seriously you take the poll itself. To go by Gartner, the poll may be sound & fury signifying not much, but it’s still a beginning. For all its downhome state-fair fried-butter-on-a-shtick, the Ames poll is serious business. Besides its beauty-pageant aspect, the Ames poll also has a bit of musical chairs to it; winners use its results to go on, while losers lick their wounds and go home. To go by the results on Saturday, and the way in which another candidate changed the survey’s outcome without even being in Iowa, the poll could signify everything and nothing at the same time.

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Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota shored up her bona fides of credibility among then faithful by winning the Ames poll, with about 29 percent of the vote. Bachmann was followed closely by libertarian darling Rep. Ron Paul of Texas with about 28 percent, and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty with about 14 percent. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Georgia businessman Herman Cain followed, then former Masachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and former Obama White House ambassador to China Jon Huntsman.

“This is the first step toward taking the White House in 2012,” Bachmann told the crowd. “And you have sent a message that Barack Obama will be a one-term president. This is a wonderful down payment on taking the country back -- and it started in Iowa.”

Pawlenty issued a statement reported by CNN: "We made progress in moving from the back of the pack into a competitive position. ... We are just beginning, and I'm looking forward to a great campaign."

But no. In an interview Sunday with ABC News’ Jake Tapper, Pawlenty pulled the plug on a campaign that never got off the respirator in the first place. “We needed to get some lift to continue and to have a pathway forward,” he said. “That didn’t happen, so I’m announcing this morning, on your show, that I’m going to be ending my campaign for president.”

There’s no published knowledge on this, but watch for the deeply quixotic campaign of Newt Gingrich to follow suit sometime by month’s end, Gingrich having been spared the ignoble distinction of being the first to fold his tent.

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The newest presidential aspirant, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, arrived in Iowa on Saturday, after the poll was finished, but the thunder he stole with his announcement earlier in the day in South Carolina helped him secure almost 4 percent of the straw poll vote without breaking a sweat.

Campaign observers got an early look at the contrasting styles of Perry and Bachmann at their separate appearances at the Black Hawk Republicans’ Lincoln Day Dinner. Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin of Politico reported how Perry and Bachmann worked the same room at not far from the same time:

Perry arrived early, as did former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. The Texas governor let a media throng grow and dissolve before working his way across the room to sit at table after table, shake hand after hand, pose for photographs and listen politely to a windy Abraham Lincoln impersonator, paying respect to a state that expects candidates, no matter their fame, to be accessible.

But Bachmann campaigned like a celebrity. And the event highlighted the brittle, presidential-style cocoon that has become her campaign’s signature: a routine of late entries, unexplained absences, quick exits, sharp-elbowed handlers with matching lapel pins, and pre-selected questioners.

She camped out in her bus, parked on the street in front of a nearby Ramada Hotel, until it was time to take the stage. Even after a local official’s introduction, Bachmann was nowhere to be found. It was not until a second staffer assured her that the lighting had been changed and a second introduction piped over the loudspeakers that she entered the former dance hall here. By the time she made her big entrance to bright lights and blaring music, the crowd seemed puzzled.

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Almost as puzzling as the behavior itself. Bachmann, who has frequently made jest of Obama’s personal style and his use of the perks of the presidency, may have lapsed, diva-like, into embracing her own cult of personality. Having her picture on the cover of Newsweek days earlier undoubtedly had the effect of reinforcing her as a Star. You're forgiven if you feel a Norma Desmond moment coming on.

Or maybe not. Maybe it’s something more serious, just possibly it’s the cerebral elephant in the room. A few weeks back I blogged about the initial campaign reception to news of Bachmann’s status as a sufferer of migraine headaches — one of 30 million Americans. It hasn’t much been on the radar since then, and it wouldn’t be included here if not for some of what Politico reported: “late entries, unexplained absences, quick exits.”

What would account for acting like that in such a pivotal time for establishing visibility, and credibility, with the voters? You want to believe she’s just getting bad stagecraft advice. The human being in you hopes it’s not something worse.

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By winning on Saturday, Bachmann achieves a certain momentum over her fellow contenders for the Republican nomination. By losing on Saturday, not that badly but badly enough for a young campaign, Tim Pawlenty goes home.

And by trailing Bachmann in this first raw test of electability, the others who stay in the race will be struggling to matter.

In the march to what counts — the nomination — how much the Ames Straw Poll itself factors in that is anyone’s guess. Or anyone’s estimation.

Nate Silver, the New York Times’ statistical guru, wrote on Saturday that “the straw poll is a reasonable simulation of the Iowa caucuses themselves. A relatively low number of Iowans participate, but that is also true for the caucuses, a cumbersome exercise which has notoriously low turnout. A candidate’s financial position might help him to induce people to vote in the straw poll by buying their tickets and busing them to the event — but money also helps to secure votes in a variety of ways when the real caucuses takes place. And a candidate’s willingness to spend time in Iowa is helpful both in the straw polls and in the caucuses.”

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But Charles Franklin of, working up his own analysis, wrote Sunday in The Huffington Post that “the caucus is only the first event of the nomination process and so an alternative approach is to focus on the brass ring: the nomination itself. Is there any evidence that performance in the Ames straw poll has an effect on winning the GOP presidential nomination?

“The short answer is ‘no.’ And the longer answer is “beware of statistical analysis with very few cases.”

The Ames poll may be not much better than sticking a wet finger in the wind to determine which way it’s blowing. And in trying to gauge the mood and sentiments of a querulous American public, that makes it no better or worse than any other campaign metric. Like the money a candidate has on hand. Or the pace of donations. Or the metric that really matters: voter passion — the metric that’s not a metric, the one these candidates can’t do without.
Image credits: Fried butter on a stick: California Examiner. Bachmann: Associated Press. Perry: Associated Press.

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