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Ames Straw Poll isn't the real Iowa—Not even close

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Smart v. Stupid

Ames Straw Poll isn't the real Iowa—Not even close

There is a lot less crazy in Iowa than you may have imagined

  • Iowans choose the next president.
    Jimmy Zuma/TucsonSentinel.comIowans choose the next president.
  • Iowa's famous Butter Cow, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
    Jimmy Zuma/TucsonSentinel.comIowa's famous Butter Cow, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
  • Kevin Rivers may know more about the upcoming election than anyone else in Iowa.
    Jimmy Zuma/TucsonSentinel.comKevin Rivers may know more about the upcoming election than anyone else in Iowa.
  • Cast your Kernel 2011 results as of August 17.
    Jimmy Zuma/TucsonSentinel.comCast your Kernel 2011 results as of August 17.

Des Moines, Iowa—Midwestern Iowa might seem like a haven of nutbaggery, especially when viewed through coverage of the Iowa Straw Poll. Iowa is a state of over three million people. But well under one percent of them attended this over-reported event. So this week, I traveled to Des Moines to find out what the other 199 out of every 200 were thinking. The good news is that there are a lot fewer rabid right-wingers than you may have imagined.

The Iowa Straw Poll isn’t really a poll at all. It’s a fundraiser for the Iowa Republican Party. Republican presidential hopefuls pay the local party $30 per vote. Then they bus people in, give them that prepaid vote ticket, ply them with food, entertainment, concert admissions and a t-shirt. The votes are then counted—this year fewer than 17,000 in all. Michele Bachmann won. She spent $145,000 on her vote tickets and got 28 percent of the vote. All in all, she probably spent a quarter-million dollars on the event.

Of the ten Republicans in the race, eight got fewer votes than the number of Hawaiians that live in Iowa. In fact, the bottom five combined got fewer votes than all the Hawaiian-Iowans.

Everyone else seems to choose the Iowa State Fair for their festival experience. The fair is famous for two things—the “butter cow” (celebrating its 100th anniversary this year) and meat on a stick. You can get bacon on a stick, steak on a stick, a pork chop on a stick, you name it. “FOX News did a big story on it,” my bus mate volunteered. But the only thing that was unique about these snacks was the addition of a stick. Otherwise, it’s an ordinary strip of bacon or an ordinary pork chop. Even the stick was nothing special. Disappointing.

So too, the famous butter cow. It’s a cow sculpture made of butter, encased in a glass tomb. There is a rope line for organizing the steady line of families and ladies with walkers. The cow is smaller than I’d imagined, more like a scrawny, desert grazer, not a plump, grain-fed cow. The whole thing reminds one of Lenin’s tomb. Well, assuming Lenin was a cow. Made of butter. Which—come to think of it—is just about what the dead Lenin looks like. The butter part anyway.

Beyond my shattered expectations, this was—by far—the coolest state fair I ever attended.

Most everyone seemed disinterested in talking about politics though. When asked who they’d vote for, person after person answered, “don’t know,” “haven’t decided,” or “haven’t thought about it.” So I visited the political booths. Now something you need to know about the Iowa State Fair is that it is huge—on the order of five times the magnitude of any state fair back east. So it took me the better part of a morning to find them.

Both the Republican and Democratic booths were pretty small—smaller than the gutter guys’ and the mop men's. There was no crowd like the cookware shill had. After hemming and hawing, a Republican finally admitted that the Rick Perry signs were moving the quickest. At the Democratic booth, a greeter was quick to confirm that all of the buzz was about Perry. Skipping the straw poll had not hurt him at all.

I walked around for another hour before I discovered the corn poll, Cast your Kernel 2011. Anyone who asked could receive a kernel of corn from Kevin Rivers, a big, genuinely-friendly guy who is a promotions manager for WHO-TV. Then you drop it in the mason jar of your favorite candidate. By the time I arrived, Cast your Kernel had about twice as many votes as the straw poll. And Kevin, who was there while most of them were cast, turned out to be a pretty knowledgeable guy. “A lot of people are not happy,” he said.

In the corn poll, President Obama was leading the next closest competitor, Michele Bachmann, by eleven points and leading Perry and Romney by an average of twenty. “Perry opened up a lot after he announced,” says Kevin, “but I’m not sure how much his recent statements [on climate change] will hurt him.” Today’s agriculture relies heavily on science and the issue of global climate change is pretty well settled in Iowa. The Des Moines Register noted that “Perry’s opinion runs counter to the view held by an overwhelming majority of scientists.”

When all Republican votes were counted together, though, news for the president was not so good. Obama trailed badly, 61 percent to 39 percent. “But I wonder how many of those votes will stay Republican when their candidate is not picked,” Kevin mused. He suspects about half, which seems like a pretty good guess. Still, the poll is a strong indication that Iowa independents are breaking Republican. They’re not happy with the president.

While I was there, almost everyone that voted made some sort of comment. It was this way all along and Kevin had been there for most of them. What are people concerned about? “Jobs and the economy—about equally split, I’ve noticed,” says Kevin. The deficit? “Not really. Just jobs mostly, and the economy. It turns out that we started this poll in a really bad week for Obama, what with the downgrade and all.”

Of course Cast your Kernel is not a scientific poll, but I’d bet that Kevin has some of the best anecdotal data of anyone in Iowa. My guess is that Kevin Rivers will know the results of the next election long before the rest of us.

Jimmy Zuma splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Tucson. He writes the online opinion journal, Smart v. Stupid. He spent 5 years in Tucson in the early ‘80s, when life was a little slower, swamp coolers were a little more plentiful, Tucson’s legendary music scene was in full bloom, and the prevailing work ethic was “don’t - unless you have to.”

“Perry opened up a lot after he announced, but I’m not sure how much his recent statements [on climate change] will hurt him.”

— Kevin Rivers, WHO-TV

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