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Guest Commentary

Blame the press, too, for the nonsense of the Ames Straw Poll

11/28/2012

Q: What do words like fraud, scam, joke, hoax, swindle, racket and farce have in common?

A: Although all are appropriate, few if any are used by the watchdog free press in news coverage of the Iowa GOP’s Ames Straw Poll.                 

The poll, of course, is the scam held the year before a presidential election; whichever candidate for the Republican Party nomination gives the most money to the Iowa GOP is crowned as a front runner for the U.S. presidency. Votes were bought in Ames for $30 to $35 a ticket in recent straw polls. The gimmick itself dates back to 1979.                 

Every time since then, the press eats up the joke. Instead of accurately reporting the payoff as a hoax or swindle of the electorate, the news tells you as you were told in 2011: “Michele Bachmann emerged the winner in the widely anticipated Ames Straw Poll” (Huffington Post) or “Michele Bachmann, affirming her status as a top-tier candidate…” (Fox News).                 

The wire services, newspapers and broadcast stations across the nation abet the GOP racket — not by reporting that Bachmann won because her payoff to the Iowa GOP was about $4,500 more than U.S. Rep. Ron Paul could muster, but that she beat him 4,823 to 4,671. Also not generally reported: their combined total was about 1.5 percent of the registered Republicans in the state.                 

Hooray! says the press: “We have a leader in the presidential derby!” Hooray says the Iowa GOP: “We got a half million or more in payoffs again this year!”                 

And the Straw Poll farce lives on — thanks in large part to an acquiescent and gullible press.              

(Indeed on election night 2012, a network correspondent for NBC-TV talked about the Straw Poll as though it had legitimacy.)                 

The Iowa press and sane journalists elsewhere would never seriously report that, say, a good candidate to replace Dan Gable or Cael Sanderson as wrestling coach at Iowa or Iowa State would be Hulk Hogan or Hacksaw Jim Duggan. But every four years they tell us that the likes of Bachmann are good candidates for the presidency — thanks to the Ames Straw Poll.                

The poll is in the news again because Iowa Gov. Republican Terry Branstad says it’s time to pull the plug. The Des Moines Register quoted his spokesman Tim Albrecht: “The straw poll is a disservice to Iowa Republicans in that it discourages top-tier candidates from attending, and therein threatens their participation in the caucuses, a la John McCain and Rudy Giuliani.                 

“Or, a candidate still finds success in the caucus despite not participating (Mitt Romney) or finishes sixth in the caucuses despite winning the straw poll (Michele Bachmann).”                 

Branstad told the Wall Street Journal, “I think the straw poll has outlived its usefulness. It has been a great fundraiser for the party, but I think its days are over.”                 

Not so fast, counters the state GOP chair, A.J. Spiker. A statement on the party’s website: “The state GOP and the presidential campaigns will determine if there is an Ames straw poll come 2015.”                 

Translation: “We aren’t giving up maybe a million dollars that easily, particularly when the press is so gullible and helps us line our pockets.”                

Also, given the results of the November election — seen by many as a setback for the Christian right, which controls the Iowa GOP — big spenders may be loathe to continue giving to apparently lost causes of the far right. If so, Iowa Republicans will need every dollar they can lay their god-fearing hands on.                 

Efforts to revamp the Straw Poll face major challengers: The militancy and energy of the evangelical GOP and the feebleness of the watchdog free press.  

See you in August, 2015, in Ames. CV 

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