Posted on August 23, 1999 in Washington Watch

Last week’s Iowa straw poll and this week’s press fixation on unsubstantiated rumors about Texas Governor George W. Bush’s alleged drug use provide further evidence of the disturbing relationship that exists between media and politics.

To a great degree U.S. politics has been transformed into a game of media perceptions. The media creates perceptions and politicians and their campaigns become focussed on trying to shape those perceptions. The Iowa straw poll was a perfect example of this game.

On the surface, the Iowa poll was intended as a fundraiser for the Iowa Republican Party. All registered Republicans in the state were invited to attend. They were to pay $25 for admission and the right to participate in the day’s events.

All of the Republican contestants for the 2000 presidential contest were also invited. They were asked to give 10-minute speeches and distribute their campaign materials. At the end of the day, those Republicans who paid $25 were to vote for their preferred candidates.

It was not a real election and the event had no real standing. Looking back in history establishes how irrelevant the Iowa straw poll can be. In fact, no Republican who won past Iowa straw polls has gone on to win the presidential nomination.

This year’s winner was George W. Bush. He received over 7,400 votes or 31 percent of the total votes cast. In second place was publisher Steve Forbes who received 21 percent of the total vote (over 4,900 votes). Next was Elizabeth Dole with 14 percent (3,400 votes). Following her were two religious conservatives Gary Bauer and Pat Buchanan who shared 16 percent of the total vote.

Not an election–just a fundraiser? Wrong! A combination of media hype (600 reporters covered the event, all the major networks sent their stars, and cable TV carried the entire proceedings live) and candidates’ hype (millions of dollars were spent by the candidates on this non-election) transformed this simple fundraiser into the first major contest of the 2000 presidential elections.

With so much pressure focused on this straw poll, the candidates directed significant resources into the event. Since it was, in reality only a fundraising event, there were virtually no rules or limits placed on what the candidates could do or spend in order to win.

The first signs as to how far the candidates might go to win the Iowa straw poll came when the Iowa Republican Party auctioned off areas of land outside of the center where the event was to take place. This was done to allow the candidates to set up their booths to attract voters and distribute material. The Bush campaign won the prize plot of land for a $43,800 fee–a high price for one day’s use of a few thousand square feet.

On these plots the candidates set up elaborate tents where they offered an amazing array of singers, star athletes, Hollywood celebrities, amusement park rides for children, tens of thousands pounds of food and more, to entertain potential supporters.

To further enhance their ability to bring voters to the event, all of the candidates provided free transportation. For the most part, that included bus trips to and from the event. One candidate rented a 747 to bring older supporters from a distant part of Iowa. Others organized car rides. It was reported that the Bush campaign offered college fraternities $500 to organize their members to come.

And all of the campaigns provided free tickets to all Republicans who came to vote for them. Bush bought over 10,000 tickets. Forbes bought 7,700 tickets. It appeared that very few, if any, Iowa Republicans actually had to pay the $25 fee for themselves.

In fact, when added together the amounts that the candidates spent on rent, tents, transportation, entertainment, food and tickets for the 23,000 Iowans who attended the straw poll–millions were spent. Most of the candidates spent more than $100 per vote received–although Steve Forbes’ effort was the most expensive at $305 per vote!

All of this establishes clearly that the Iowa straw poll was most certainly not an election. It was, if anything, a fun-filled day of entertainment and organized bribery. If it all hadn’t been so open and accepted, the event would have been a scandal.

But why, given all of this, did the candidates take it so seriously and pay so much to participate in this farce?

The answer is quite simple. The media pressure and the pressure from the other campaigns created a collective need to be there and, once there, to not be embarrassed by losing.

It was fascinating, given the bizarre means used by the candidates to use their money to buy the illusion of support, to watch the media pundits comment on the day’s events as if it were a serious contest. Bush’s victory was called everything from “promising sign” to a “less than convincing performance” (since 70 percent of those who came voted for other candidates). Forbes, who spent more than $2 million, was praised for “knowing how to get his people to turn out.” He was crowned “Bush’s main competitor.” Elizabeth Dole was praised for her “respectable third place finish” and Gary Bauer was congratulated for his “surprisingly strong showing.”

In all of this surreal hype, no one remembered that much the same was said when Senator Phil Gramm won the Iowa straw poll leading up to the 1996 presidential elections and spent $750,000 on the contest. In fact, Gramm won 27 of the 28 straw polls he entered that year. He then proceeded to lose miserably in the real election.

In the midst of the game, however, very little attention is paid to reality. The media and the politicians combine their efforts to play this game of perceptions. And the result was five solid days of press coverage from the Iowa straw poll–all of which made it out to be a real contest and an important political event.

Ironically, the winner of the Iowa poll may be the one candidate who stayed away, Senator John McCain. As the dust settled on the hype, he gained rather significant coverage by denouncing the event for the farce that it was. His evaluation of the straw poll: “It’s a meaningless, kind of senseless thing and now that its’ over, I think we’ll start probably next month some time focusing on the issues, hopefully have some debates, so that people can make informed judgments rather than paying people and having tens and millions of dollars spent…. I didn’t think I should go. I have a fiduciary responsibility to my contributors not to waste their contributions.”

Equally ironic is the fact that one loser of the straw poll may be George W. Bush. Now that he has won, the press has declared that he is fair game. The months of Bush’s honeymoon with the media are now over and they have begun to press him hard on the issue of drug use.

This, in itself, is a rather bizarre development since there is no evidence that the Governor has even used drugs. There are unsubstantiated rumors–to which he refuses to respond. When asked whether or not he has used drugs, his answer has always been that he will not engage in the press game of chasing rumors. By neither affirming nor denying a non-story, the press has only become hungrier. As a result, the past three days’ headlines have been filled not with evidence against the Governor, but with reports of his non-answer. The net and unfortunate effect has been the assumption of guilt–yet another sad commentary on the power of perceptions.

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