A freaking fraud

    Come one, come all, to the cosmic joke otherwise known as The Iowa Straw Poll.On Saturday night, a tiny slice of the Iowa Republican electorate will purport to anoint a winner among the party’s presidential hopefuls – whereupon a huge slice of the American political media, on site for the circuslike festivities, will endeavor to pump some heavy meaning into the event. Namely: Will this help/hurt Tim Pawlenty? Is this good/bad for Michele Bachmann? Is Mitt Romney up or down? Good luck with all that.The Iowa Straw Poll results will be grist for analysis on Sunday and Monday, and we’ll all partake. But be forewarned that most of it is mere smoke and mirrors (to borrow the old Jimmy Breslin phrase). Some pundits are hip to the event; George Will riffs on its “cunning weirdness,” and Roger Simon calls it “an amiable hoax.” I’m here to tell you that this perpetually hyped Iowa event, a state Republican tradition since 1979, is a freaking fraud.The winning candidate is the one who succeeds in purchasing the most votes. This is the literal truth. The event has always been, and continues to be, a fund-raising hustle. The way it works is, all grassroots Republican attendees are required to pony up 30 bucks apiece for the state GOP – except that the attendees never actually pay a cent. The candidates pick up the whole tab. They’ll typically transport busloads of voters onto the site, in the town of Ames, all expenses paid. They’ll woo the voters with free food, drink, and entertainment, in exchange for support in the straw poll. To win the poll, in other words, you’ve got to show people the money. As I well recall from being on-site in the summer of 1999, self-financed Steve Forbes garnered the second highest vote total in part because he had the most sumptuous hospitality tent, the only tent that was air conditioned.This event is staged whenever Republicans have an open race for the nomination – 1979, 1987, 1995, 1999, 2007. But as a predictor of Republican sentiment, the event is virtually meaningless. Care to guess how often the Straw Poll winner has gone on to win the Republican nomination? Once. George W. Bush, in ’99.Bush’s dad won it ’79, but the ’80 prize went to Ronald Reagan. Christian conservative Pat Robertson won it in ’87 (he dispensed swell toys, including a headset with revolving red lights), but he was history soon after people actually started voting in the ’88 primaries. The ’95 Straw poll was a boost for Senator Phil Gramm (he tied for first), but you’ll search in vain for a ’96 Gramm juggernaut. In 2007 the winner was Mitt Romney, who spent in excess of $2 million (which translated, at minimum, into roughly $443 per purchased vote) – but we all know that John McCain ultimately won the nomination. The same John McCain who didn’t even bother to show up for the Straw Poll.By the way, when it became clear in June ’07 that McCain would be AWOL, Romney’s people got all huffy at their rival: “Campaigns that have decided to abandon Ames are likely doing so out of a recognition that their organizations are outmatched and their message falls flat with Republican voters in Iowa.” Fast forward to 2011. Care to guess who has abandoned Ames this time, refusing to spend a dime on voter purchases? Mitt Romney.Romney figures the event isn’t worth the investment. Who can blame him, given the track record? The only candidates to buy space at the Ames event are Pawlenty, Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Ron Paul, and the ever-popular congressman Thad McCotter. Romney will be on the ballot, however, along with the aforementioned six, plus two others: Jon Huntsman, and Newt Gingrich (R-Tiffany). Rick Perry, the party savior du jour, is off the ballot.I’ll concede that there might be a few worthy subplots this weekend. Pawlenty has sunk a few million into the event, and if he finishes near the bottom of the heap despite a hefty expenditure, he may well be doomed. (His situation reminds me of a joke from 1999, when we all said that the real purpose of the Iowa Straw Poll was to persuade Lamar Alexander to quit already. Lamar had failed to win the ’96 nomination, and by the summer of ’99 he was on fumes going for his second try. Sure enough, the ’99 Straw Poll helped finish him off. It did the same for Dan Quayle.)Pawlenty aside, it’s possible that the Straw Poll may tell us something about Bachmann. The event typically draws a lot of Christian conservatives, her core audience, but apparently she’s not well organized on the ground in Iowa and the Straw Poll is all about the ground game.But it’s important to remember that the Straw Poll results don’t necessarily reflect broader sentiment among Republicans in Iowa. Because this event typically attracts – and this is not a misprint – roughly two percent of all registered Iowa Republicans.Which means that 98 percent of them aren’t sufficiently interested in a sideshow that typically features the likes of Vic Damone (who sang, in vain, for candidate Orrin Hatch in ’99.)What can the 700 media attendees substantively extrapolate from that two percent? We’ll soon find out. Meanwhile, some seasoned Iowa observers believe that the winner will be Ron Paul. If so, that may tell us all we need to know about the worth of Freaking Fraud V.——-Hey, you can now follow me on Twitter.

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