The Iowa GOP Straw Poll

You've undoubtedly already heard the results of the Ames, Iowa, Republican straw poll. The numbers are as follows.

I'll start off with some comments on the finish of each of the candidates.

Mitt Romney. Romney had to finish first and did. Rudy Giuliani and John McCain took themselves out of the straw poll in June, and Fred Thompson, who has yet to officially announce, did nothing. (A few guys from Texas and Tennessee drove up and bought a table next to some other guys who bought a table for Alan Keyes, who has already demonstrated that he can lose by a landslide margin to Barack Obama.) Romney spent a lot of money on the straw poll and had an excellent organization. Yellow Romney T-shirts predominated among caucus attenders, and Romney staffers were driving golf carts back and forth in the 95-degree heat (much hotter, as I remember, than the 1999 and 1995 straw polls). I visited the Romney state headquarters in the Des Moines suburb of Urbandale the night before, which was nearly empty (the staff had already traveled up I-35 north to Ames), but there were a dozen or so cellphones on several tables; at Ames the Romney team had seats for 300 to eat barbecue and baked beans. Romney's 32 percent was fractionally larger than George W. Bush's 31 percent in 1999, and his percentage margin over second-place finisher Mike Huckabee was larger than Bush's second-place margin over second-place finisher Steve Forbes. All well and good: a solid performance. And as the Romney people point out, the organizing work they've done for the straw poll will pay dividends for the caucuses in January (or, possibly, in December 2007)

Mike Huckabee. On Friday evening at Huckabee's small headquarters in downtown Des Moines, I interviewed his Iowa campaign manager Eric Woolson, who was Bush's Iowa press spokesman in 1999. He told me that Huckabee had only two staffers in Iowa up through July 1; Woolson himself drove Huckabee around the state. He spent less money and had far less staff than Sam Brownback, his obvious competitor for the votes of religious conservatives. But his theme was pitched against Romney: message not money. Huckabee's speech at the straw poll made the same point. He is an excellent and ingratiating speaker, optimistic and upbeat, weaving biblical phrases into his speech. He told me afterward that he doesn't have a text but speaks extemporaneously, with an outline in mind and while keeping a careful eye on the clock. It's possible his speech won enough caucus attenders (although most seem to have voted before the speeches: voting started at 10 and the speeches ran from 12:45 to 2:45) to eclipse Brownback. Huckabee's finish obviously keeps him in the race at least until the Iowa caucuses, although I don't think it puts him in the top tier.

Sam Brownback. He had more organizers than Huckabee and the straw poll's only air-conditioned tent (though the AC got pretty feeble late in the afternoon). Brownback is a more effective speaker now than he used to be, at least in my experience; he weaves in biblical phrases. He combines traditional appeals to opposition to abortion with the theme that we have a duty to preserve life at all stages; his entourage included Bobby Schindler, the late Terri Schiavo's brother, and Norma McCovey, the original plaintiff in Roe v. Wade who now opposes abortion, and he was the one candidate to make mention of Darfur. Brownback clearly hoped to finish second, but professed himself pleased with the result. He seems to have more money than Huckabee, and he ran so closely behind him that I think it's unlikely he'll drop out before the Iowa caucuses.

Tom Tancredo. A very uneven speaker, whose trademark issue is opposition to illegal immigration but who finally managed to incite the crowd. (The Iowa Republican organizers allowed each campaign to flood the floor with its own supporters while their candidate spoke, then escorted them from the hall, isuring each candidate a maximally enthusiastic audience, while rendering incommensurate the crowd's reactions to the various speeches.) Illegal immigration was perhaps the caucus attenders' No. 1 issue, and Tancredo's finish makes it apparent that he's not going to be nominated for president. But he apparently is not sure whether he'll run for Congress again, and with Colorado's relatively late filing deadline doesn't have to decide until well after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. So there's no reason to expect he won't stay in the race.

Ron Paul. He had thousands of enthusiastic supporters, with signs all over the caucus site at Iowa State and the parking lots as well. His people chanted loudly when the announcement of the results was delayed an hour (because one polling station's counter got jammed by a wet ballot and all the ballots there had to be counted by hand). Paul is an eccentric libertarian given to outrageous statements, like saying that September 11 could have been prevented if we properly observed the Second Amendment. (There is the kernel of an argument here: if pilots had been armed, as they are now, thanks to a law sponsored by among others California Sen. Barbara Boxer, the hijackers might not have succeeded; but it wasn't nonenforcement of the Second Amendment that prevented them from being armed.) Paul's supporters cheered loudly his fifth-place finish as if it were a great victory. Astonishing. I suppose he'll be around for quite a while.

Tommy Thompson. He said he had to finish first or second to go on, and he finished sixth. So, adios. Thompson is not a convincing advocate for his own cause, which is a shame. Thompson was one of the nation's most important and successful governors of our time. His welfare reform was the prototype for one of the major public policy successes of the 1990s. And it was not achieved easily. He rolled out his changes in welfare one at a time, and shrewdly managed to change the culture of the caregiving profession. That's a policy and political achievement of a high order. Thompson started off his speech by saying he's from a small town, which he is. He went from Elroy to college at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, then got himself elected to the legislature from Elroy in his early 20s, served there for many years, then served 15 successful years as governor. But he still sounds like a guy you'd meet over beers in Elroy. By the way, Thompson rode into the straw poll site on his (Wisconsin-made) Harley, with a parade of 70 motorcycles (that was my count as I passed them on I-35). He did that also in 1999, as a Bush supporter; one of the motorcyclists then was Josh Bolten, then a Bush staffer and now White House chief of staff.

Fred Thompson. No boomlet for Thompson among the caucus attenders; one table wasn't going to do it. Very few people decided to drive what for many is several hours (geographically, Iowa is bigger than Pennsylvania; it takes five hours to drive across the state) and stand in the 95-degree heat under cloudless skies to cast a vote for someone who isn't competing. I don't think this affects Thompson's viability, but he has to make a hard decision on whether to compete in the Iowa caucuses. He's coming to Iowa Thursday: interesting.

Rudy Giuliani. Ditto. He was in Iowa several days last week and is coming again Wednesday: interesting.

Duncan Hunter. He made a bizarre speech decrying trade with "Communist China" which reflects his past as a Pat Buchanan supporter. He obviously has no organization and money here. Hard to see how he goes on, or whether it matters.

John Cox. He's a Chicago area accountant who can deliver an acceptable conservative speech. He claims to have county chairmen in all 99 counties, but got only 41 votes. Some people think it would be nice if an ordinary citizen who hasn't served in public office could run for president, but few peoplseem ready to vote for such a candidate.

Now for my larger thoughts about the straw poll. I start off by comparing the results above with the results for 1999.

Notice what's the biggest difference. 1999 turnout: 23,685. 2007 turnout, 14,302, down 40 percent. Romney and his staff make the reasonable point that the heat may have held the turnout down; the temperature in 1999 was, as I remember, in the 80s. They add that George W. Bush then was running way ahead in national polls, while today Romney, far less well known, is running in single digits in most national polls, and the candidates who have been, at various times, leading the national polls--Giuliani, McCain, Thompson--weren't competing. A valid point: if they had been, they presumably would have brought out at least some people who weren't there. But how many? Another 10,000? One wonders. The Romney people make another probably valid point: if Giuliani, McCain and Thompson had thought they could have won, they would have entered. But evidently they concluded they couldn't match what turned out to be 4,516 votes.

Which is not all that much. Romney won 506 fewer votes than second-finisher Steve Forbes won in 1999. Huckabee won 832 fewer votes than third-finisher Elizabeth Dole won in 1999, and she dropped out too not long thereafter. Brownback won 78 more votes than Gary Bauer won in 1999; he ended up finishing behind Alan Keyes in the precinct caucuses.

My conclusion is that the sag in turnout is bad news for the Republican Party. It suggests a lack of enthusiasm and esprit. Romney makes the point that eight years ago Republicans were enthused at the prospect of the end of the Clinton administration and were optimistic about taking back the White House. Today, by contrast, they seem depressed or at least unenthusiastic by the record of the Bush administration and pessimistic about holding the White House. Romney began his speech in the hall by calling for change and in his victory statement said, "Change begins here today in Iowa." A man from Mars listening to his speech and those of other candidates might be forgiven for supposing that we have a Democratic administration in office now. Caucus attenders cheered particularly loudly when candidates called for enforcement of the law against illegal immigrants and for lower government spending. Romney's own program sounds a lot like Bush's in 2000: He wants to strengthen the military (Bush called for that too), to strengthen the economy (by holding down taxes, a key Bush promise) and to strengthen our families (Bush called for restoring integrity and dignity to the White House). Republican candidates seem to be trying to do what Nicolas Sarkozy did in France: run as the candidate of change to succeed a president of his own party. (Footnote: Sarkozy is vacationing on Lake Winnepesaukee in New Hampshire, where Romney owns a vacation house. I asked Romney if Sarkozy was staying near his house, and he said he was staying next door, and that Sarkozy's people had inquired about using Romney's house; Romney said his staff had turned them down, and that he thinks it would have been great if Sarkozy were staying in his house.)

Some other observations on the candidate speeches.

Not a whole lot was said about Iraq and the struggle against Islamist terrorists. But the crowd cheered when candidates decried their frustrations with how that struggle is being waged. They cheered when Romney hailed the decision to send Khalid Sheik Muhammad to Guantanamo and not give him a lawyer. They cheered when Tancredo hit the rules of engagement in Iraq and said they should be, "We win, you lose." They cheered less convincingly when former House Armed Services Chairman Hunter assured them that we will be successful in Iraq.

Abortion, the issue the mainstream media loves to dwell on, was less of a hot button than it has been in previous contexts. Huckabee and Brownback both weave abortion into aissue of "life" with broader ramifications, such as saving others from persecution. Romney skates over it pretty quickly. Evoking greater response was the issue of illegal immigration and calls for better law enforcement. (Hunter even suggested, if I heard him correctly, turning over enforcement to FedEx, which he says keeps better track of packages than the government does of aliens in our country.) Many of those who have advocated "comprehensive" immigration reform, as I have, have spoken as if opponents were motivated primarily by a distaste for foreigners. But that's subsidiary, I have come to think. The candidates quite understandably voiced the mantra that they had nothing against legal immigrants, which I'm sure is true of them personally but which I think is to a considerable extent true of those who are cheering them on as well. Yes, many of them don't like hearing "press 1 for English" (but do they really want to prohibit private businesses from doing that?) and seeing the predominantly Latino neighborhoods that you can find even in Iowa. But I think what rankles most is that the rules aren't being effectively enforced. And that's a legitimate concern. You don't have to be a racist to feel that way.

People flouting the rules: that's the link between concern about illegal immigration and opposition to same-sex marriage. I got the sense that caucus attenders are angry that the country seems to be changing in ways that seem quite wrong to them, and that the government--including the Bush administration--have not done much about it. And to the extent the candidates were suggesting that they would, they were also calling for a more active and perhaps even intrusive government than you would normally associate with the Republican Party. America is becoming more Latino, inexorably: the 2000 Census recorded that one sixth of people in this country under 18 were classified as Hispanic. An effective enforcement of our immigration laws will probably require something like a national identity card--and there were loud cheers when Ron Paul (I think it was him) denounced the idea of a national identity card. One of Mitt Romney's three "strengthening" themes was "strengthening the family." But how does government do that? Yes, there are some public policies which can move things in that direction: Tommy Thompson's welfare reform was one of them, and it's already in place. There are others, but it's a pretty ambitious goal.

We have a society with an increasing number of immigrants, many of them illegal, and an increasing toleration of homosexuals--and also a country where teenage promiscuity and teenage births are in at least mild decline. Caucus attenders consider some of these trends negative, and yearn for government to do something about them, but it's not clear what, while they tend, as most of us do, to overlook the trends that are positive. They have goals which seem very hard to achieve, and at some level seem to sense that that is so. There is an analogy in the Democratic Party, I think. Many Democrats want to bring the struggle in Iraq to an end, right now. But it is becoming apparent that that's not going to happen, and Hillary Clinton is getting them used to the idea that there are actually going to be a lot of American troops in Iraq, subject to attack, at least some considerable time during her administration. Admirers of centrist politics argue that when parties are dominated by wingers, they will press for policies that will have bad effects. But that of course depends on what policies you think are bad. The more accurate depiction of the problem may be that parties dominated by wingers, at least right now, will press for results that their policies cannot possibly attain. The result is eternal frustration. That is at least one theme you could take away from the Iowa Republican straw poll voters who are pressing desperately for change in the seventh year of a Republican administration.

By Michael Barone