On August 13, the Iowa State campus in Ames will become the center of the political universe, as thousands of Republicans participate in what is frequently ballyhooed as the season’s most important campaign event. The GOP activists will wolf down free barbecue, enjoy musical acts, watch their children be diverted by clowns, cheer political speeches, and cast ballots in a mock election designed to preview next February’s Iowa caucuses.
We are, of course, talking about the Iowa Straw Poll. I will never forget watching in 1999, as the self-funded Steve Forbes squandered nearly $2 million in a failed effort to buy his way to victory at the event, and the other GOP contenders, from George W. Bush on down, vied to match him. Even now, I marvel at the memory of the air-conditioned, 166-foot-long mega-tent, with five French doors, that Forbes erected to house his supporters. “You know what this event is? It’s something that Iowa has a lot of—it’s a good-natured fraud,” said Iowa-born Michael Gartner, the former president of NBC News, as we watched Crystal Gayle perform on behalf of a doomed Lamar Alexander. “It’s a hustle, but it’s all out in the open, and it’s done with such good spirits.”