Ready, Ames, Fire: The Iowa Straw Poll Ames, Iowa, hosts the GOP presidential straw poll on Aug. 11. Yes, it's mostly a scheme to raise funds for the state party. But it also matters: A surprisingly strong or poor showing could make or break some candidates' campaigns.
NPR logo Ready, Ames, Fire: The Iowa Straw Poll

Ready, Ames, Fire: The Iowa Straw Poll

Mitt Romney, seen here campaigning in Ames, Iowa, has spent freely in the state. He's expected to win the Aug. 11 straw poll. But he also has the most to lose. Eric Rowley/Getty Images hide caption

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Eric Rowley/Getty Images

Mitt Romney, seen here campaigning in Ames, Iowa, has spent freely in the state. He's expected to win the Aug. 11 straw poll. But he also has the most to lose.

Eric Rowley/Getty Images

An early sign of Bob Dole's weakness as a presidential candidate became evident during the 1995 Iowa straw poll. hide caption

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Here's one person who might be intrigued by a Thompson-Thompson ticket. hide caption

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The definitive book on Women in Congress is now available. hide caption

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Forty years ago today, a Gallup Poll shows President Lyndon Johnson defeating all potential GOP challengers (Aug. 1, 1967). But Johnson will ultimately be forced out of the race by the Vietnam War. hide caption

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There are some 160 days, give or take, until the Iowa caucuses. That's the first event on the presidential nominating calendar that often sets the tone for the rest of the campaign season.

A less-understood event comes much sooner: the Iowa Straw Poll. Held in Ames, it's a quadrennial effort by the state Republican Party to bring the GOP candidates into the state to compete in a poll that has nothing to do with delegates but a lot to do with headlines and publicity. It also says something about a candidate's organizational ability to get his or her supporters to turn out and take part in the poll. But in addition to all that, it's a fundraising gimmick by the Iowa GOP. To participate, each person must pay $35. It makes a lot of money for the Iowa Republican Party. What's to stop a well-financed campaign from "buying" votes? Nothing. And that's the rub.

Two leading candidates, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, are skipping the event. Intentionally or not, their decision steals some of the thunder from Mitt Romney's campaign. The former Massachusetts governor had been spending freely in the Hawkeye State, and many saw him as the likely straw poll winner. That hasn't deterred the other Republican candidates — Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, ex-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, businessman John Cox, and Reps. Duncan Hunter (CA), Ron Paul (TX) and Tom Tancredo (CO) – from participating. The event takes place on Saturday, Aug. 11.

Also on the sidelines will be Fred Thompson, the actor and former Tennessee senator, who is not expected to officially get into the race until after Labor Day. His name will appear on the straw poll ballot, but there is no indication that his campaign – or whatever it's called – is doing anything to affect the Ames result.

So I know I just called the straw poll little more than a fundraising scheme by the party. But it is much more. It's surviving the expectations game that the political cognoscenti have set up for the candidates. Both Brownback and Huckabee are battling among one another to be the standard bearer of social conservatives – it's already become personal – and whoever fares worse on Aug. 11 could pay a price. Similarly, Tommy Thompson has made Iowa a make-or-break state for him, but a dismal showing in the straw poll might keep him from getting to the January 2008 finish line. And what if Ron Paul lives up to his supporters' expectations and finishes ahead of some of the better-known and better-financed candidates? The repercussions are endless.

If it sounds silly that this event could have major consequences, all you need to do is check the history books.

1999: Unlike earlier examples (see below), this was one case where straw poll expectations were met. Texas Gov. George W. Bush was the front-runner going into the straw poll vote, and he won it, though his margin against wealthy publisher Steve Forbes was narrower than expected. The second-place finish of Forbes, who outspent everyone else at the event, gave his candidacy momentum, as did the third-place showing of former Red Cross President Elizabeth Dole. Conservative activist Gary Bauer finished fourth and TV commentator Pat Buchanan came in fifth. Sixth place was deemed unacceptable by the guy who finished there: former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, who had worked the straw poll longer than anyone else. He withdrew from the race two days later. Candidates who performed even worse – Alan Keyes (seventh place), former Vice President Dan Quayle (eighth) and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (ninth) – all remained as candidates, but none proved to be viable for the nomination.

1995: Bob Dole was the clear GOP front-runner; after all, he had already won the Iowa caucuses in 1988. But in the straw poll, Dole could do no better than tie Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas. Each received 2,582 votes. While some in the Dole camp blamed the showing on complacency, Dole himself said the straw poll results had nothing to do with how his campaign was performing in Iowa. Dole did go on to win the Iowa caucuses in 1996 — by a very unimpressive margin — but he lost in New Hampshire. He won the nomination, but his weakness in Iowa foreshadowed his weakness as a general election candidate against President Clinton that year.

1987: Heading into the '88 nomination battle, Vice President George Bush was viewed as the front-runner. He had all the money and the key Iowa endorsements. Sen. Bob Dole, from neighboring Kansas, was hoping that his Midwest connections would help his cause. No one foresaw the victory of Pat Robertson, the televangelist. Robertson, who had already done surprisingly well in the early skirmishes in Michigan, won the straw poll with 1,293 votes, compared to 958 for Dole. Bush finished third, with 864 votes, followed by Rep. Jack Kemp of New York (520), ex-Delaware Gov. Pete du Pont (160), and former Secretary of State Alexander Haig (12). Iowa Republican officials were stunned, saying that the people who showed up for Robertson were completely new to the political process. The results clearly shook the Bush camp, though it's not clear to what extent: At the February 1988 Iowa caucuses, Bush again finished third (Dole first, Robertson second). But Bush did go on to win the nomination and the presidency.

1979: Not much attention was paid to the straw poll that year. But George H.W. Bush outworked, out-hustled and outspent front-runner Ronald Reagan at the straw poll, winning with 35.7 percent over a field that also included former Texas Gov. John Connally, Sens. Howard Baker of Tennessee and Bob Dole of Kansas, and Illinois congressmen Phil Crane and John Anderson. Bush beat Reagan again the following year at the caucuses. Still, Reagan breezed to the nomination.

OK, back to the present:

Q: If Fred Thompson should win the GOP nomination for president, attention will turn to his choice of a running mate. Among those who will make anyone's long list – and perhaps a short list or two – is former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson. What do you think of a Thompson and Thompson ticket? Would the uniqueness of it be a help or a hindrance? – Roy Everson, Oslo, Norway

A: "Thompson and Thompson" might look interesting on a button or a bumper sticker – not that we pay attention to those things – but Tommy Thompson, whatever his strengths or weaknesses as a presidential candidate, doesn't seem to us to be "No. 2" caliber. Governor of Wisconsin for a record 14 years, Thompson reportedly chafed during his tenure as HHS secretary under President Bush. Some people seem destined to be vice president, or lieutenant governor, or work for Avis. Not Tommy Thompson. Plus, in introducing himself to audiences at debates – where Fred Thompson has yet to appear – Tommy often mocks Fred by saying, "My name is Thompson. I'm the candidate, not the actor."

Tommy Thompson is expending a great deal of time and energy in Iowa, land of the nation's first caucuses. As always, he remains confident of his chances.

Q: What is the current partisan makeup of the House? – Dawn Corsi, Providence, R.I.

A: Democrats hold 231 seats, Republicans 202. There are two Democratic vacancies – in California's 37th CD, where Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald died, and in Massachusetts' 5th CD, where Rep. Marty Meehan resigned to become chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Both of these are likely to be filled by Democrats when all is said and done.

Q: In your July 5 column you wrote of a "peculiarity" in Nebraska state law that allowed an appointed senator [Eva Bowring] to serve "only until November – not until the term was to expire, in January." I suggest that this is not a peculiarity at all but the standard practice in most states. Can you think of a state where the governor is empowered to appoint a U.S. senator to serve beyond the date of the next general election? I submit there is no such state. Am I wrong? – Dewie Gaul, Sioux City, Iowa

A: So many questions, so little time. For this I turned to Matthew Wasniewski, an expert on congressional history who works in the Office of the Clerk in the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington. Matt is also the editor in chief of a voluminous and spectacular recently published book, Women in Congress: 1917-2006. Here is Matt's detailed explanation:

"The answer I've got is about as convoluted as the 50 state election laws themselves. I had to call over to the Senate Historical Office for an answer as to governors' appointment powers. Here's the gist of my conversation with them and what I know from my research for the Women in Congress book:
First, the general trend is as your reader suggests: governors have the power to appoint only until the next general election. But that general rule is subject to the vagaries of a lot of complicated state election laws. There is no federal law that uniformly determines that a governor may make an appointment only up until the next general election.
Moreover, in some instances, the actual swearing-in of a senator-elect to the remainder of a term can be delayed for personal scheduling reasons (for instance, the senator-elect may be occupying another elective or appointed office), thus extending the term of the appointee for a short amount of time.
There are other examples of earlier and later women appointed to the Senate who, in fact, unlike Eva Bowring, served beyond the general election following their appointments (if only for a few weeks or months). One example is Elaine Edwards of Louisiana:
Edwards (one of two women appointed by her husband to the Senate; Dixie Bibb Graves of Alabama was another) succeeded Allen Ellender after his death in 1972. She served from Aug. 1 to Nov. 13, when she resigned (a week after the general election) to give John Bennett Johnston, who had been elected on Nov. 7 to the full term commencing in January 1973, a seniority advantage.
It may be that the election statute governing this example was peculiar only to Louisiana and, moreover, that it may have changed since Edwards served. I'm no expert on state election law. But there are several historical examples that would seem to provide the exceptions for which your reader was inquiring."

In case anyone forgot, the name of this column is "Political Junkie."

BORN TO RON: A lot of response to last week's feature on Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul. Many, like Rick Theile of San Ramon, Calif., were just happy to see some coverage of Paul by NPR. Rick writes, "I now consider NPR responsible again. I have never heard a presidential candidate or any politician speak the truth until Ron Paul."

Not everyone was so happy, but part of it was my fault. Matt Gaffney of Washington, D.C., took issue with my "Neither Paul nor [Dennis] Kucinich has a shot at making the ticket." Matt was "really mystified as to why you would phrase it this way. On Intrade [the prediction market], Paul has a 3% chance, which is not great, but it's not 'no shot,' and it's a lot higher than it was three months ago when he entered the race. I don't think political writers should be attempting to shape public opinion with language like this." Others had the same reaction, some with the kind of language that sadly has become commonplace on the Web.

For the record, my "they-have-no-shot" statement was in answer to a question about whether Paul or Kucinich might find themselves as someone's running mate. I was not making a judgment about whether either might win his respective party's nomination; I was talking about the VP spot.

On a similar vein, Jive Dadson of San Jose, Calif., writes, "I frequently hear that Ron Paul has zero chance of winning. Why do people believe that? If the election were held today on the Internet, he would win. Why is it inconceivable that his campaign cannot break out into the brick and mortal world?" Adds Denise Carroll of Staten Island, N.Y. , "Ron Paul will have a shot at the nomination when NPR and everyone else gives him the coverage he deserves."

There's also this from Jane of Manchester, N.H.: "If Paul has no support, who gave him the $2.5 million he just raised? I personally raised $27,000 for him in N.H. without much effort. Many of his supporters don't have landlines, or have never been registered to vote before, so they are not called."

Another person with no last name, Henry F. of La Crescenta, Calif. , writes, "You stated in your column about Ron Paul (which, by the way, was very well-written) that he 'has more friends on MySpace than Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.' This is not true. According to, Paul has 49,252 friends, compared to Obama's 152,470 and Clinton's 123,644."

Back to the polls, Tatiana De La Cruz of Portland, Ore., says she has "been a Democrat for most of my life and will be voting Republican for the first time. Ron Paul's message has stirred my heart and mind in ways that no other candidate has done in my 20 years as a voter. Please also remember that Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter both started out with 2-3% in the polls. Let's give all the candidates a chance and let the voters make the decisions." (Similarly, Jeremy Parfitt of Santa Fe, N.M.)

Finally, Steve MacIntyre of Beaver Dam, Ariz., has this to say about my observation that, despite the Web interest in the Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich candidacies in 2004, neither really went especially far:

"By my recollection, the passion for Kucinich was about his politics itself, whereas the passion for Dean was about the chance of Democrats winning for once. These are two different things. Then, as now, Kucinich dared uniquely to be unabashedly liberal, which stirred blogosphere support for the man but generated almost no expectation that he might actually win. Dean, on the other hand, a pragmatic centrist from a traditionally Republican family, stirred passion because he really did look like a winner. In hindsight, it's easy to forget what a refreshing change Dean's pugnacity was after the long drought of dispirited Democrats seemingly so willing to roll over.

So the blogosphere always knew that the Kucinich campaign never had a chance. But the Dean campaign did, and it imploded, I think, for three reasons exogenous to the blogosphere:

  • The press' overbuilt expectations of a Dean Iowa blowout;
  • Iowan Democrats' strategic desire for a 'presidential appearing' candidate;
  • The 'Dean scream' dirty trick which, as you know, was created by filtering out the deafening crowd's roar to create the false impression of a maniacal yell (a sound clip used to this day during the Political Junkie segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation).
  • Though my own views were consistent with Dennis Kucinich's, it was Howard Dean who got my money. I knew that whether ultimately he won or lost, during the campaign he would put the lumber to George W. Bush relentlessly. On this score John Kerry failed, and the rest is history."


Aug. 2-5 – YearlyKos convention of liberal "Netroots" activists and bloggers, Chicago.

Aug. 5 – Republican presidential debate, Des Moines, Iowa, sponsored by ABC News and WOI-TV.

Aug. 7 – AFL-CIO Democratic presidential forum, Chicago.

Aug. 7 – Mississippi gubernatorial primary.

Aug. 9 – Gay Democratic presidential forum, sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign, Los Angeles.

Aug. 11 – Iowa Republican presidential straw poll, Ames.

Aug. 19 – Democratic presidential debate, Des Moines, Iowa, sponsored by ABC News and WOI-TV.

WE'RE ON THE AIR EVERY WEDNESDAY: Reading this column is bad enough; you can also hear a "Political Junkie" segment every Wednesday on Talk of the Nation, NPR's live call-in program, at 2:40 pm Eastern time. This week's show: Fred Thompson's money, Ted Stevens' home, and Iowa's straw poll. If your local NPR station doesn't carry TOTN, you can still hear it on the Web.

IT'S ALL POLITICS: That's the name of our weekly political podcast. It's a combination of brilliant analysis and sophisticated humor, hosted each week by NPR's Ron Elving and myself, and it goes up on the Web site every Thursday.

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please don't forget to include your city and state. *********

This day in campaign history: A Gallup Poll shows President Lyndon Johnson with leads against three prospective Republican challengers for 1968: 49-44 percent over Michigan Gov. George Romney, 51-43 percent over former Vice President Richard Nixon, and 51-39 percent over California Gov. Ronald Reagan (Aug. 1, 1967).

NO COLUMN NEXT WEEK: Hey, if the Iraqi parliament can take off during the summer, so can we! See you in two weeks.

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: