The Iowa Poll, with a Straight Face

Harkin

The Iowa senator's presidential candidacy in 1992 made the Iowa caucuses meaningless. hide caption

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Beery button

The Democratic nominee in California 22 is not beery happy with "Political Junkie." hide caption

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Mr. Peanut

The truth -- finally -- about Ken Rudin's past life. hide caption

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I'm not exactly sure what was most interesting about the recent Des Moines Register poll that showed former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards leading among likely participants in the 2008 Democratic caucuses in Iowa.

The poll had Edwards with 30 percent of the vote, followed by Sen. Hillary Clinton (NY) with 26 percent, Sen. John Kerry (MA) 12 percent, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack 10 percent, and a three-way tie with 3 percent for ex-Sen. Tom Daschle (SD), former Gov. Mark Warner (VA), and Sen. Russ Feingold (WI). Further down the list was Sen. Evan Bayh (IN), with 2 percent, the same as retired Gen. Wesley Clark.

Was it the fact that the poll was taken in the first place that I found most interesting? After all, it is June of 2006. Or was it that political folks were talking about it? With 19 some-odd months before the caucuses, a poll is conducted, and we're already throwing around terms such as "frontrunners" and "winners" and "losers." For the record, Howard Dean led in the Iowa polls two weeks before the caucuses there in 2004 — he ultimately finished in third place — so I'm not sure how serious we should all be taking these numbers.

Yet here we have John Edwards being heralded in a Washington Post political column as the "clear winner" in the poll and Tom Vilsack the "most obvious loser." Even The Press Trust of India (which I read on most occasions) felt that the poll merited calling Clinton "once the frontrunner."

But in the Bizarro world of political wags, a poll like this tends to take on a life of its own. How can Vilsack be taken seriously, the question that is bound to come up, if he can't do any better than third in a Des Moines Registe survey? It's a fair question, though I'm not sure what it means. Then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, for example, was far more popular outside of New York than he was inside the state when he was thought to be considering a bid for the White House back in 1987.

(Then again, maybe we all want Vilsack to be viable, reeeaaalllly viable, so that he can make Iowa meaningless in 2008 — the way Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin made the caucuses meaningless with his 1992 candidacy — and so that we don't have to visit the state in '08. Raise your hand if you'd rather be in New Hampshire.)

Aside from that, it's hard to put much stock into these numbers. That's not to say that Hillary Clinton should or should not necessarily be the "frontrunner" for the nomination, let alone the favorite to win the caucuses. It's a bit early. She, of course, has yet to set foot in Iowa, whereas Edwards, currently out of office, has visited the state five times this year, and four last year, more than any other Democratic presidential hopeful.

I suspect we will be visiting this subject again.

Tuesday's Primary Results:

MAINE: Jean Hay Bright, an organic farmer, narrowly won the Democratic Senate primary and now has the dubious honor of taking on Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) in November. In the race for governor, Gov. John Baldacci (D) is likely to face state Sen. Chandler Woodcock, who narrowly won a three-way Republican primary that included former Rep. David Emery.

NORTH DAKOTA: Dwight Grotberg is the long-shot Republican nominee against Sen. Kent Conrad (D); neither faced a primary challenge.

SOUTH CAROLINA: State Sen. Tommy Moore defeated Florence Mayor Frank Willis for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination and will challenge incumbent Republican Mark Sanford in November. A third of the GOP electorate chose a political unknown rather than Sanford, who is seeking a second term. The son of former Gov. Carroll Campbell (R) advanced to a runoff with the incumbent lieutenant governor in the Republican primary.

VIRGINIA: In the Democratic primary to see who would take on Sen. George Allen (R), James Webb, a former Republican who was secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration, defeated lobbyist and Dem activist Harris Miller, 53-47 percent. Several leading Senate Democrats made the unusual move of endorsing Webb in the primary, figuring he would be the stronger candidate in the fall against Allen, who has 2008 presidential aspirations. Webb cited dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq as the reason he left the GOP. Six years ago, he had backed Allen in his successful campaign against then-Sen. Chuck Robb (D).

Also ... update from South Dakota: Four Republican state senators who refused to support South Dakota's strict anti-abortion bill were ousted in the June 6 primary. According to Stateline.org, the total is now 38 state legislators who have been defeated in primaries thus far this year, 31 of which are Republicans. Of that total, 17 lawmakers (14 Republicans) were defeated in the May 16 Pennsylvania primary alone, mostly resulting from voter anger over a legislative pay raise. Among the houses to watch in November, the Iowa Senate is split 25-25 between Democrats and Republicans, and the GOP has a 51-49 edge in the Iowa House. The Montana House is also tied at 50-50, while the Dems control the state Senate 27-23.

AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST UPDATE: In the event you were too busy reading The Press Trust of India about the new Iowa 2008 poll (see above), here's a quick recap on last night's results. The Yankees defeated Cleveland 1-0 behind the pitching of Chien-Ming Wang and the home run of Robinson Cano, while in Minnesota, the Red Sox had a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the 12th until Jason Kubel hit a grand slam to win the game for the Twins. Yanks and Sawx are tied for the American League East lead.

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE VOTE: The Senate voted June 7 not to proceed with a constitutional amendment to define marriage as one between a man and a woman. The procedural 49-48 vote was to end debate on the measure; 60 votes were needed for it to be brought to a full debate and vote. While most Republicans voted to end debate and most Democrats voted against shutting it off, here is a tally of those who broke with their party:

Republicans: Chafee (RI), Collins (ME), Gregg (NH), McCain (AZ), Snowe (ME), Specter (PA), Sununu (NH).

Democrats: Byrd (WV), Nelson (NE).

MILESTONES: West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd, 88, is now the longest serving senator in history, surpassing the late Strom Thurmond's (R-SC) record of 47 years, 5 months, 1 week and 1 day. Click here to listen to a great sit down interview with Byrd by NPR's David Welna that ran on All Things Considered.

Hey, there's even room for a question!

Q: I know that every Republican seeking another term this year voted in favor of going to war in Iraq. But how did those Democrats who are running for re-election this year vote on the war? — Eric Montgomery, New Haven, Conn.

A: Actually, not every Republican up in '06 voted to go to war; Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee was the lone GOP exception. The vote in October of 2002 to give the president the authority to go to war was 77-23. Here's how those Democrats up this year voted on the resolution:

Yes: Cantwell (WA), Carper (DE), Clinton (NY), Feinstein (CA), Kohl (WI), Lieberman (CT), Nelson (FL), Nelson (NE).

No: Akaka (HI), Bingaman (NM), Byrd (WV), Conrad (ND), Kennedy (MA), Stabenow (MI).

Also: Robert Menendez (D-NJ), now a senator but then a member of the House, voted NO.

SURF'S UP: A lot of mail regarding the June 6 special election in California's 50th Congressional District, in which Brian Bilbray held onto the seat vacated by convicted Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham for the Republicans. In last week's column, I called the result — where Bilbray defeated Democrat Francine Busby 49-45 percent — a victory for the GOP.

Brian Deagon of Santa Monica, Calif., saw it differently, pointing out that Cunningham "previously won every election with no less than 55 percent of the vote. In the 2004 election, Cunningham beat Busby with 58 percent of the vote, compared to 36 percent for Busby. Yesterday, Bilbray got 49 percent. That's a 9 percent switch to Democrat in a district where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats 3-to-2. That Bilbray won by 4 percent is hardly a victory to savor."

Similarly, Jim Bartos of Beaverton, Ore., wrote, "Busby may have outraised Bilbray, as you said, but isn't it also true that the national Republican Party spent $5 million to the Democrats' $2 million? That seems a pretty significant difference to me, and perhaps worth examining. Why did the national party spend so much money on a relatively safe district?"

It's true, as Brian Deagon says, that Bilbray got a smaller share of the vote than Cunningham. But the atmosphere of today certainly does not resemble what it was like before the Dukester got himself embroiled in a major bribery scandal. Cunningham had been in office since 1991, with a united party behind him. Bilbray had to deal with not only the odor of Cunningham's corruption, but a schism in the GOP over issues such as immigration and the environment. Jim Bartos' point is correct as well, in that the GOP vastly outspent the Dems in the special election.

But, as Johanna P. Maney, a Republican from Arlington, Va., points out, "It wasn't too much if we won. It would have been too much if we had spent it and lost. The fact is, Bilbray had a very, very tough environment to overcome — and he did." And Lou Cannon, the great Washington Post political reporter (now retired) and author, writes, "Busby was gaffe-prone, but Bilbray was no world beater as a candidate, either; he ticked off the arch-conservatives. I think what's disappointing from the Democratic standpoint is that Busby's percentage is essentially John Kerry's in this district. She should have been able to do better, considering the disillusionment with Bush and, in this district, with House corruption in wake of the Cunningham scandal. The Dems are now saying the outcome was close, a weak spin. In the old phrase, close counts only in horseshoes and hand grenades. It's unlikely any California district, including this one, will be as close in November. The gerrymandered districts — done in this state, ironically, by the Dems — mean that Democrats have to win nearly every close seat to take the House."

And one final note on California 50, from Bill Carlisle: "I read in the paper that illegals might have voted in last week's elections, and oh, what an outcry. But judging from the record low turnouts at the polls, I say let 'em. Someone's got to make electoral decisions for us since, apparently, citizens don't want to. Perhaps those who've crawled through mud and dodged vigilantes to get here will actually appreciate the privilege."

DOUBTING THOMAS: In my mini-review of California's 22nd Congressional District, which House Ways and Means chair Bill Thomas (R) is vacating, I wrote that the seat "is all but certain" to go to Kevin McCarthy (R), a Thomas protégé. That prompted this note: "You have Kevin McCarthy as the sure winner. You made it sound as though he has no opponent. Well he does have an opponent — SHARON BEERY. Me! It would have been nice had you just mentioned my name." OK, you shamed me into it. Here's a little more than her name. According to Sharon Beery's Web site, she is "a "businesswoman, mother, and grandmother... a member of the Farm Bureau for seventeen years... an educator for 22 years... and a recipient of the California Life Teaching Credential." Plus, the campaign even sent a virtual button — which gets featured in this week's column, even if it's not a real button. (Top that, Kevin McCarthy!)

Here is the ultimate column closer.

Q: I enjoy your commentary while listening to NPR. It is always informative and entertaining. My question is not quite on that issue, however. I am trying to figure out if you are the same Ken Rudin who wore a Mr. Peanut necklace and was a Color War General at Camp Lokanda back in the 1970s? If you're not, I will still listen, gladly, but given the quirkiness of the delivery, I was just wondering. — Cara London, Flemington, N.J.

A: Obviously, my years in the witness protection program didn’t pay off. First of all, it wasn't a necklace, for goshsakes. It was a plastic Mr. Peanut that I decided to put on a string. And what you fail to mention is that I was the winning Color War General. Everything else you say is true. And in addition to being group leader for the 7 and 8-year old boys, I was also the editor of the Lokanda Lantern — in which I would make up my own letters to the editor. And for the record, that is a practice I have NOT repeated with "Political Junkie."

REMINDER: "Political Junkie" is featured every Wednesday on NPR's Talk of the Nation, a live call-in program, at 2:40 p.m. Eastern. This week: Virginia primary results, the Bush trip to Iraq, the non-indictment of Karl Rove, Nancy Pelosi takes on the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Democratic left holds a conference in Washington.

Also ... check out NPR's interactive election map, highlighting every Senate, gubernatorial and key House race in the country, with early projections.

Podcasting Couch: Big news to report on the long-rumored NPR political podcast. It's happening, and it's being launched this week! The weekly podcast will feature the wisdom, expertise and shenanigans of Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving and myself, and will be edited by Beth Donovan and produced by Muthoni Muturi. Check the Web site for more details.

This Day in Political History: House Democrats, trying to recover from the resignations of Speaker Jim Wright and Majority Whip Tony Coelho, name Richard Gephardt of Missouri as the new majority leader and William Gray of Pennsylvania as the new whip (June 14, 1989).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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