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Jewish World Review Aug. 25, 1999 /13 Elul, 5759

Michael Barone

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The first two contests --
FIFTEEN MONTHS BEFORE November 2000 and nearly six months before the Iowa caucuses, there have already been two serious contests in the presidential race–the Republican straw poll August 14 in Ames, Iowa, and the money primary as measured by the July filings with the Federal Election Commission. The results so far have been good news for Republicans.

Of course it is often said that these are not real contests; they don't select delegates or determine electoral votes; they involve only small numbers of voters. But most Americans are not involved in politics at all; only in presidential general elections do bare majorities of eligibles participate, even though it is easy to vote and to volunteer time and money. The interesting questions in early contests are how many bother to participate and how they vote.

The most interesting answer from the Iowa straw poll was that turnout was sharply up. In 1995, 10,958 people voted in Ames, including about 3,000 out-of-staters then eligible under the rules. This time 23,685 voted, all Iowans, almost one quarter of the 100,000 who turned out for the Republican caucuses in February 1996 and triple the turnout for the previous straw poll. The difference was enthusiasm among Iowa Republicans–enthusiasm for their candidates, for the party generally, and against Bill Clinton. (The loudest cheers at Ames were for Pat Buchanan when he said that after taking the presidential oath he would turn to Bill Clinton and say, "Sir, you have the right to remain silent.") Turnout is one thing polls cannot gauge; only actual contests can. A tripled turnout is a very encouraging sign for Republicans; nothing can be said about Democrats, who have no similar contests.

The payoff. The Ames straw poll was a fair test–or about as fair a first test as any could be in a democracy of 270 million people. It served a similar function to futures trading in financial markets, in which investors put up small sums and exercise great leverage. The straw poll let candidates with low numbers in national polls show strength in a limited area, with leverage up for some (Steve Forbes, Elizabeth Dole, Gary Bauer) and leverage down for others (Lamar Alexander, Dan Quayle). It also allowed candidates to avoid this contest to compete later, like John McCain, who denounced the straw poll as a "sham" for its $25 entry fee but who is running as a defense hawk and prefers to make his stand in hawkish South Carolina rather than dovish Iowa. It gave George W. Bush a chance to show he could arouse enthusiasm, as he did when he got 7,418 Iowans to go to Ames–triple the number of any previous straw poll winner. Yes, it does seem absurd to give Iowa and New Hampshire a monopoly on the first caucus and primary. But without some entry-level contests somewhere, all but a few well-known candidates would be eliminated.

The Iowa straw poll was not the only primary contest Bush won this summer; by an even greater margin he won what his top campaign strategist, Karl Rove, calls the money primary. Through June 30, Bush raised $37.3 million, and other Republicans raised $37.1 million, not including the $38.1 million Forbes lent his campaign. Both Bush and the other Republicans raised more than the combined total of Al Gore ($19.5 million) and Bill Bradley ($11.7 million). Bush had 42,000 contributors of $250 or more and other Republicans had 23,000, compared with 20,000 for Gore and 14,000 for Bradley. This surge cannot be dismissed by saying fat cats are mostly Republicans; millions of people can afford to give $250, and they include about as many Democrats as Republicans. Nor can the GOP or Bush leads be dismissed as smart money: The White House will be run for the next 16 months by a president who is campaigning for his vice president as no other president has ever done. The money primary tells the same story as do the national polls: of Republicans enthusiastic to put their man (or woman) into office and of Democrats exhausted after keeping a president in office who (in the opinion of Judge Susan Webber Wright) has committed crimes.

Political contributions are often portrayed as the heart of The Corruption of American Politics, the title of Elizabeth Drew's meticulously reported new book. Drew's Washington is reminiscent of the Paris of 19th-century novelist Honoré de Balzac, in which everyone has a string out to some provincial interest and uses money, social connections, and scandal-mongering journalism to affect the decisions of a centralizing government. But free people will always try to affect government, and in a mostly indifferent nation political ideas cannot be communicated without money. No one has proposed a serious campaign finance scheme that would eliminate private contributions altogether, and limits on contributions or spending tend to give more leverage to incumbents and insiders. You can tinker at the margins, but there is no entirely satisfactory way of raising political money, any more than of selecting presidential nominees. The money primary and the Iowa straw poll are fair tests, and the results so far favor George W. Bush and the Republicans.

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of the biennialAlmanac of American Politics. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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©1999, Michael Barone