I think I had a hand in inventing the Iowa caucuses, and I think I sort of invented the Iowa straw poll that is getting so much attention these days.
At least I was the first to write about them.
So I claim authority for offering a verdict: The straw poll Saturday and the caucuses next winter are absurdities.
The state of Iowa, its politics, government and institutions are the poorer for these charades. Nor do the events benefit the nation.
Next weekend, the results of the Republican presidential straw poll will get headline treatment in the national media. The contender who gets the most votes from the 12,000 or so Iowans there will be hailed as the victor. Or perhaps someone who didn't win in the voting will nonetheless be declared the winner for having "exceeded expectations." Either way, the results will be reported as if there had been a real test of public support for the candidates. But just about everyone in Iowa politics knows that the event is meaningless. At best, all it will show is which candidate's staff can most effectively spend money to bring voters to a party gathering that, aside from raising funds for the state GOP, accomplishes nothing for the rest of the nation's voters.
This straw poll is a spinoff of one I arranged for the Des Moines Register at a Democratic gathering in Ames back in 1975. (Now both parties have straw polls when the nomination is contested. If the powers that be in the Iowa Democratic Party decide there's profit in it, they'll hold theirs at the traditional Jackson-Jefferson Day dinner in October.)
At that first 1975 poll, Jimmy Carter won, by busing people in from Georgia, Illinois, Nebraska and Wisconsin. Whatever organizational skill that represented wasn't reflected in any part of the Carter administration I remember.
Before the 1970s, straw polls--carefully tailored by a candidate's managers--were a quick, cheap way to get a little publicity, which was mostly used for money-raising. Back then, the Register refused to print results of those polls on the theory that at best they're misleading.
I argued for an exception to that rule when I ran the Register's Democratic straw poll in 1975, claiming it would show important differences among the candidates' organizations.
In truth, my only real interest was getting a news story that no one else had. The paper published the results for all comers, and everyone involved in national politics has been hooked on straw polls ever since.
Sorry about that.
It's been 24 years since that attempt to contrive some news, and we're still living with the consequences. For Saturday's Republican event, the Hilton Coliseum at Iowa State University at Ames will have all the trappings of a national convention. Kayne Robinson, the Iowa Republican chairman, says he expects a turnout of 10,000; the Ames Chamber of Commerce is expecting 12,000 visitors. According to state GOP officials, 400 reporters from around the country have asked for credentials.
In the parking lot outside, each candidate will have a tent where he or she will offer refreshments and put on entertainment to draw and hold an audience. I don't know what they all have in mind, but here's what Orrin Hatch says about his plans (I figure that he, as the latecomer, will have the most subdued show):
The straw poll is "what elections are all about," Hatch told the Des Moines Register last week. "It's about having fun. Ours is going to be a family oriented thing. And the people who come for me are dear friends. We're going to have Karl Malone there, the most valuable player in the NBA. Roger Williams from Des Moines, the great pianist, is going to be there for me. Vic Damone is trying to arrange his schedule to come, the great singer. And there's a chance that Gladys Knight will come for me."
Entrance to the hall requires a $25 ticket--which goes toward the state GOP's take from the event. Inside, each candidate will be allotted 10 minutes for a speech and three minutes for the "spontaneous" demonstration by his or her supporters.
After the speeches, balloting starts. Voters must have the $25 ticket and will have to have an Iowa driver's license or an identification card with a photograph, showing a home address in Iowa and that the person will have reached the age of 18 by Election Day next year. (The proof-of-residence rule is new this year.) The balloting ends the official program.
The presence of most of the nation's political writing corps doesn't necessarily suggest that they're being taken in by the straw poll nonsense. When that many politicians flock to one place, the reporters have no alternative but to follow. (On the other hand, when the reporters are in one place, the politicians tend to flock there, too.)
It's not just the media that pays too much attention to the straw poll and the caucuses. Since their advent, Iowans, too, have taken to talking about campaign tactics instead of content.
Michael Baier, the proprietor of a Des Moines neighborhood bistro where I frequently have lunch, told me how the George W. Bush campaign is approaching Saturday's straw poll. "These guys working for Bush came in for lunch and said they're trying to put together about 400 names. You want to vote in that straw poll at Ames? Just go to Walker Johnson Park in Urbandale on Saturday afternoon. They'll give you a $25 ticket and put you on a bus and take you up there to vote and have a good time."
"How do they make sure you vote for Bush?" asked Al Miller.
"They just depend on your honor," said Baier.
"God help us all," said another regular, Fran Shade.
"I just might do it," said Miller. "But I like John McCain."
"Just show up at Walker Johnson Park and get on the bus," said Baier.
Organizing a busload of folks from What Cheer, Iowa, (yes, that's a real place) to go 75 miles to vote in a straw poll for Bush or Steve Forbes may give someone a sense of political participation, of having served the community, but it doesn't do anything for What Cheer or Iowa or the country.
It doesn't rebuild crumbling schools or clean up polluted lakes and rivers or get doctors and dentists to start practices in town or . . . well, you get the idea.
With the poll, what we have instead of meaningful democracy is basic ward-heeling politics. No longer can Iowa boast of its squeaky-clean image. Even the Christian Coalition looked less wholesome after its Iowa coordinator lost her job a couple of weeks ago for charging that the Forbes campaign asked her to use her employment agency to hire people to vote in the straw poll. (The Coalition and the Forbes people both said it wasn't true.)
After next weekend's festivities in Ames, Iowa will drop out of the headlines (assuming we are spared natural disasters or mass murders) until February, when the caucuses will take place unless the Republicans move them back to late January to stay ahead of New Hampshire. The caucuses are almost as meaningless as the straw polls but will get even more intense media attention.
The presidential caucuses as they exist today were hatched in 1971 by a young Ames couple, Clif and Marlene Larson. Clif was then an Ames bar owner and state Democratic chairman. He and Marlene moved the caucuses to their present early spot on the political calendar in order to get a little publicity for the Iowa Democratic Party and maybe pay its debts. They also had the idea that the event could teach the candidates or their surrogates about Iowa's issues and interests.
I was the chief political writer and columnist for the Des Moines Register then, and some might say I campaigned for the caucuses with a cheerleader's passion. It's more true than false.
In the 50 years that I've followed Iowa politics--going back to 1948 when Harry Truman gave a whistle-stop speech in a town just west of my hometown--my favorite story was when I showed then-presidential hopeful George H. W. Bush a handful of soybeans in 1979.
"Is that what those bleeping things look like?" he asked.
Beyond that, I doubt he or any other candidate stumping Iowa learned anything about the Midwest.
The myth of the Iowa caucuses is that they reflect one-on-one retail politics. That isn't borne out by the facts. Caucus politics are the same old slick posturing. It's almost impossible for a person off the street to get near any of the candidates, who are busy appearing at contrived media events or running TV spots slashing and burning their opponents.
A friend of mine, a Dominican priest named Benjamin Russell, was teaching theology in Iowa in 1972 and was awed by the prospect of presidential candidates meeting and talking with ordinary voters.
Twenty-seven years later, he says, "When I see now what the caucuses have brought us, I say take me back to the smoke-filled room."
Except for a little burst of publicity every four years, Iowa gets nothing from all of this. The state has no national parks or other pork-barrel amenities of that sort and for all the power and influence the process seems to have on electing a president, no Iowan has held a Cabinet post since Franklin D. Roosevelt made Henry Wallace the secretary of Commerce as a sop for taking away the vice presidential nomination in 1944.
Nor do I see how Iowa prepares a person to be president or tells others anything unique about a candidate.
What the nation gets out of the caucuses, I'd argue, is approximately what Rome got from the interpretation of readings of entrails. The caucuses' main product is ephemeral headlines. Sen. George McGovern's second-place finish in the Democratic contest in 1972 was deemed significant because reporters didn't expect him to finish that well. Same with Jimmy Carter in 1976. He finished well behind "none of the above." George Bush's 1980 victory over Ronald Reagan was regarded as a springboard. But there was never a full count of the ballots; a blizzard closed the state down and stopped the process.
And so on.
The Democratic Party's Iowa caucuses do have some limited meaning beyond the political writers' interpretations: The side that wins the most votes in the presidential contest wins the right to run the party for the next two years and name the delegates to the Democratic National Convention.
Not so with the Republicans. The Iowa GOP runs almost the same today as it always has; very nearly like a private club where only the executive committee knows the rules. The caucus vote on the presidential candidates is a straw poll that has no bearing whatsoever on the party's control or on the selection of the state's GOP national delegates.
It's fair to say that the highly publicized Iowa Republican straw poll in Ames next week is a straw straw poll.
You can argue that it measures a campaign's organizational ability, in a very loose sense, but with the kind of money Bush and Forbes seem to be prepared to spend, it's not something that tells about political acumen. It's beyond me how anyone thinks this differs from walking-around money in Newark or Chicago.
In an auction conducted a few weeks ago by the Iowa Republican Party, the Bush campaign put up something more than $40,000 to rent a few square yards regarded as the prime location outside the coliseum.
Among other things, that prompts the question: Isn't the straw poll even less meaningful this year (if that's possible), now that the real nominating contest has already taken place?
The money people, the people in actual control, are in it this time with a vengeance and they've already voted to give Texas Gov. Bush the Republican nomination for president in 2000.
Supposedly, a straw poll's purpose is to show the contributors how a candidate appeals to the grass-roots voters.
That seems irrelevant this year, considering the early decisions of the money people.
The $36.2 million Bush has already raised dwarfs the campaign chests of the others and tells them to stand aside this time.
That's why Luke Roth, the state's top Republican political manager, who is working for the Bush campaign, had no qualms about putting in the top bid for that prime location in that Ames parking lot.
"We're not going to let you beat Bush, with money or anything else," was the message it sent.
As an Iowan, I wish that some of that money would go into the development of policies to make Iowa a better place. Instead, it seems to go to the mindless electioneering that we allow to pass for politics nowadays.
James Flansburg worked as a reporter, editorial page editor and political columnist for the Des Moines Register until his retirement in 1997. He now writes a weekly column for the Ames Tribune.