Tell Us Again--What Was the Point in Iowa?

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Now that all the ballots have been paid for--excuse me, counted--and George W. Bush has been declared the winner of the Iowa Pay-Per-Vote Auction, it’s time to read the cornhusks and figure out what this straw poll proved beyond how hollow our politics has become.

It was sound, fury and a whole mess of free barbecue signifying nothing. Six hundred credentialed journalists breathlessly reported--”an early test of political potency,” “the most consequential political event thus far”--a contest whose winner was never in doubt and the result of which is nonbinding and famously meaningless: No outright winner of the poll has gone on to win the Republican nomination, let alone become president.

Who can forget straw poll 1995, when Phil Gramm proclaimed his first-place tie with Bob Dole “a stunning victory”? Reporters followed suit, labeling Dole’s candidacy “vulnerable” and “a paper tiger.” History proved otherwise, but this led to no reevaluation of the event by the press. In fact, it’s taken on an addled logic all its own: Serious media people treat the event as if it were serious; ergo, we should all take it seriously.


Four years later, here were the media once again, devoting days of air time and thousands of column inches to an exercise that has little to do with democracy. “There was one thing we couldn’t control: how many votes Mr. Forbes could buy,” said one Bush advisor. Who needs “One man, one vote,” when you can have “Here’s 25 bucks and a Sloppy Joe--now go vote and cheer for me”?

Steve Forbes spent $2 million and received 4,921 votes, which works out to $406 a vote. At this rate, even he won’t have enough cash to buy the presidency. His voters got gold and silver lapel pins, reserved seats on an air-conditioned bus, free barbecue, carnival rides and face-painting for their kids.

And he had a new twist: buying half an hour of television time for a “town hall meeting,” while snubbing the real televised debate, which was canceled due to lack of interest--by the candidates.

For his part, Bush shelled out more than $800,000. He served his voters lunch and dinner, featured the world champion bass fisherman at his party, recruited 50 Washington lobbyists to get Iowans to the poll, and erected a 60,000-square-foot tent on a plot of ground his campaign rented for $43,500--about $10 per grass root.

Then there was the endorsement battle of the celebrity singers: Debbie Boone for Forbes, Tracy Byrd for Bush, Crystal Gayle for Lamar Alexander and Gladys Knight for Orrin G. Hatch. And there were the speeches and the pronouncements. Elizabeth Hanford Dole has decided to run on the Dr. Seuss platform, paraphrasing that renowned political treatise “Horton Hatches an Egg.” “I say what I mean and I mean what I say,” she told her audience twice. Rumor had it that she first considered, then rejected, “I’m strong to the finish ‘cause I eats my spinach.”

Meanwhile, Bush’s victory speech contained the preposterous claim that he “won the straw poll the Iowa way: neighbor to neighbor.” In point of fact, he won it the Washington way: donor to donor. He only spent eight days with his Iowa neighbors, while Alexander, who practically moved in with them, finished sixth. So much for serious retail politics.


The lowest point of this whole sorry spectacle has been watching the media become an unwitting accomplice in legitimizing the takeover of our political process by Big Money. In fact, the straw poll’s only real purpose was to make it easier for the candidates who did well to raise more money.

Instead of questioning whether this is any way to pick the leader of the free world, we’re left with the breaking news that Iowans prefer Bush’s barbecue to Forbes’; that Liddy Dole’s buses were plusher than Pat Buchanan’s; that Dan Quayle really isn’t electable after all; and that Hawkeyes reacted to Alexander the same way most everyone does: with a shrug and a yawn.

And when Quayle, Forbes and Gary Bauer endorsed the Kansas school board’s decision to eliminate evolution from the required curriculum, there were no hoots of derision, and no reporter pressed those three on whether they also believe the earth is flat. Where’s Bill Nye the Science Guy when you need him?

The real winner of the Iowa straw poll was not on the ballot. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called the poll “a sham and a joke.” Like the little boy who cried out that the emperor wore no clothes, he refused to accept that media reality is reality.

Arianna Huffington is a syndicated columnist based in Los Angeles. E-mail: