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Ames, You Are A Cruel Mistress

So it’s all over but the crying in Iowa. The straw poll has come and gone yet again and many a campaign is left to deal with the shattered dreams that are produced by a nonsensical, non-binding event that is nothing but a fundraiser.

Jon Stewart, in coverage for Comedy Central after the 1999 straw poll, referred to the (mostly) quadrennial show as “Democracy’s Gaudy Pageant”. It truly is something to behold, and every GOP operative, at least once in their life, should attend. Of course, with more and more candidates realizing it’s a joke, the event has lost most of what it once was.

However, for those foolish enough to make the mistake of participating in 2011, here’s a rundown of what you can expect:

You are going to get screwed by somebody – The Straw poll is as notorious for this as anything else. It used to be common practice (and likely still is) for the second or third tier candidates to call supporters and encourage them to accept someone else’s ticket (and someone else’s free bus ride to Ames) and then vote for them instead. Many a candidate shelled out cash, food, and transportation only to find their “solid supporters” had screwed them. Case in point? Dan Quayle, my boss in 1999. We fed 3,500 people and got 900 votes. We had expected, and bought tickets for, about 1,500. A lot of people took our buses, and ate our lunch, only to vote for someone else.

You’re never going to do as well as you think – Ron Paul predicted he’d be in the top three only to come in fifth. Mitt Romney should have won by a huge margin, but when you add the second and third place candidates together, they actually beat him. In 1999, I learned this lesson from Lamar Alexander. I was seated in a cubicle upstairs in a study hall waiting for the results. I had found a phone line and was waiting with two press releases to send to our office in Phoenix – one announcing how well we had done, one announcing that we never expected to do well because we hadn’t invested the money in it. Alexander and his team came in and stood behind me – waiting for results on a TV in the room. When they were announced, and Lamar discovered he, too, had done worse than they expected, he shouted, “Well God Damn it, it’s not like we could have tried any harder.” After apologizing to me for disturbing my studies (I had my back to them, and they had not seen my Quayle 2000 polo), they stormed off in frustration.

It is likely that you will be outspent. If you’re not, you will probably win, but everyone will know the only reason you won is because you sent more than everyone else. – the straw poll is a fundraiser – first and foremost. The candidate who spends big wins big. The only way the race is close is if you have two candidates willing to spend big. In 1999, Forbes and Bush both spent an incredible amount of money. Forbes’ tent was ridiculous. It had giant glass French doors and air conditioning. The Bush guys were riding around on a fleet of brand new John Deere tractors and had an equally massive tent. Compare this to the Quayle operation which had secured the original tractor. It was made in Japan, had no instructions in English anywhere on it, and backfired like Uncle Buck’s Buick whenever it was turned off. Our ready room for the Veep consisted of a borrowed Winnebago. Looking at the results, I’m not terribly surprised that the two guys who spent a small fortune were duking it out for first. I’m also not surprised to see that Mitt won it this year (given he was the only guy spending a lot of money).

All the chatter about how the straw poll is a test of your ability to organize in Iowa is a bunch of crap. The straw poll is a test of how much you are willing to spend in Iowa. Period. He who is willing or able to spend the most will win. Congrats to Mitt and his team for proving that’s still true.

Written by Michael Turk