Guest Commentary

May 26, 2011 |

by Herb Strentz


Across Iowa, the caucus call goes out: MEDIC!


Journalists in Iowa are playing a double-role this year - also working as paramedics, trying to keep the Iowa caucuses alive, particularly when it comes to the GOP circus.

That's a reasonable conclusion to draw from recent developments regarding Iowa's almost 40-year status as the first-in-the-nation bellwether for presidential candidacies.

After all, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the Republican caucus in 2008, had already announced he would not be a candidate this time around. He had prayed about it, he said. (God, like lots of other people, apparently likes Huckabee and didn't want another suffering Job on His hands.)

For another, Fergus Cullen - a former chairman of the New Hampshire GOP - surfaced with a column in the Sunday Register. He said Iowa was losing political clout, partly because of people in 'tinfoil hats.' The headgear comment was interpreted as characterizing an Iowa GOP dominated by the religious right. But the next day Cullen recanted. His 'tinfoil' reference, he said, was intended to be to birthers and other oddballs and not the religious right. Cullen also regretted his column upset Iowans: 'I have nothing against the Iowa caucus - I refer to NH and Iowa as —childhood friends— 'The concern I think Iowans should have is that candidates conclude it's no longer a level playing field where they all have a chance to succeed — so some start to skip it.'

The withdrawal of Huckabee could be viewed as raising questions about the viability of the caucuses, given the lack of interest voters are showing toward most of the remaining GOP hopefuls. But the news was that the GOP field was wide open, thereby - as a Register headline had it - raising the profile of the Iowa straw poll, a rather absurd if traditional run-up event.

The straw poll, scheduled for Aug. 13, is a fund raiser for the Iowa GOP. Candidates compete to see who can buy the most votes. In 2007, Romney won the straw poll because he contributed about $160,000 of the $500,000 or so spent on votes that were cast. A ticket allowing one to vote cost $35 in '08. Not every dollar translates into a vote because some tickets to participate in straw poll activities go unused. (In 2007, the Iowa GOP also pocketed about $400,000 paid for tickets that were not used.)

The press dutifully reports the winner not as the biggest spender but as the people's choice for the nomination. That outcome is confirmed or rejected by the caucuses six months later.

Cullen said the Iowa GOP has let the 'straw poll get out of hand due to greed.'

Anyway, we have a positive spin on Huckabee's deserting the race and Iowa.

Then we have Gov. Terry Branstad, finding it necessary to point out that he has often been in each of Iowa's 99 counties and that he has never seen anyone wearing a silver hat, let alone tin foil.

Branstad also characterized Iowa as 'a full-spectrum state' and declared that even the religious right folks have interests in jobs and the economy.

Branstad's correct insistence that not all Iowans are nuttier-than-fruitcakes was covered in the news and in a column by Kathie Obradovich, the Register's chief political writer. In the same column, Obradovich also characterized concerns about the religious right's influence on the caucuses as 'rehashed criticism.'

Let us rehash.

In a column on March 8, summarizing a GOP candidate forum sponsored by the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition, Obradovich chided Huckabee, Mitt Romney and other potential candidates for not attending the evangelicals' forum. She also quoted Branstad as telling those at the forum:

'I want you to know, these people of Faith & Freedom here tonight are people who show up at caucuses.'

How does one reconcile Branstad's 'full-spectrum' characterization of Iowa voters with his recognition of how the religious right dominates the caucus?

It's apples and oranges. People cite polls and the turnout at a general election as evidence of the full-spectrum of Iowa voters, ignoring the fact that the full-spectrum does not turn out at the GOP caucuses. But the religious right does, which was one point of Cullen's column.

Small wonder of the need for damage control for the caucuses, scheduled for Feb. 6, 2012, and why moderate candidates and donors wonder if Iowa is worth their time and money.

MEDIC!!!!!! CV


Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes occasional columns for Cityview.