Tomorrow is the date of the quadrennial celebration of silliness known as the Ames (Iowa) Republican straw poll. The mainstream media will be all over it, which is the entire point of the exercise. Much will be said, pundits will pontificate profusely, and perhaps a few presidential campaign dreams will wither up and die.
But don't kid yourself. It has nothing to do with democracy.
The Iowa straw poll started out as a fairly good idea -- take an early vote in Iowa (the first state to caucus) that didn't count. The purpose is the purpose of any "poll" -- to gauge public support of the candidates. Think of it as a telephone poll, just in person.
That was the idea, at any rate. What it quickly devolved into, however, is a showcase for how to run as corrupt an election as is humanly possible. The Washington Post has a full rundown on the shenanigans involved, which is amusing to read (but be warned -- you may wish to shower afterwards, to remove the slime).
For instance: to participate in the poll, you have to buy a $35 ticket. Talk about a "poll tax" -- whew! But don't worry, because individual candidates are allowed to pay for your ticket. Even Rudy Giuliani, no stranger to machine politics, had this to say when he learned of the practice: "In New York, we call that a shakedown. What do you call it here?"
The Iowan, it should be noted, sheepishly answered back: "Well, I guess we call it a fundraiser."
There are always complaints, after the straw poll is taken, that some candidate or another has "rigged the results." Well, duh. If you design a contest to see who can buy the most votes in the first place, it's a little ingenuous to complain about "rigging" anything.
A favorite tactic in previous years was to vote, get your hand stamped, and then visit the bathroom to wash off the stamp so you could vote again. "Vote early, vote often," in other words. The hand stamp was changed to indelible ink, but one can imagine there might be unscrupulous types with rags soaked in solvents roaming the scene, offering to wipe off hand stamps. It's certainly not unprecedented.
The contest is not only the earliest "vote" in the campaign, it also is the "test market" for all the dirty campaign tricks you can manage: push-polling, recorded telephone calls that whisper dirt about rivals, fearmongering, and all the rest of it. The fringe candidates fight fiercely for position in the straw poll, as anything other than a "first tier" finish can doom a campaign at this point. Watch for at least one -- and possibly more -- Republican candidates to drop out of the race after poor finishes tomorrow.
The candidates aren't even limited to outright vote buying, they can also hire buses to bring in other bought-and-paid-for votes. Rumors of busing people in from neighboring states always fly after the event, so don't be too surprised if this accusation appears again this year. People are supposed to provide proof of residency in Iowa, but how hard can that be to fake?
From the Republican Party of Iowa's own website, historical information about the poll: "In 1999..... Over 37,000 tickets were sold / Approximately 40,000 attended." Even on their own website, they are bragging that 3,000 people snuck in somehow.
Here's another little snippet from the article: "Romney snared the prime spot for his tent -- space at the event is auctioned off by the state GOP -- reportedly by bidding $10,000 more than rivals." Not only are you allowed to buy your votes, but the party actually auctions off who gets the best placement for their tent.
What better example could there possibly be of how the Republicans would like elections to be run?
[One other fun thing happening tomorrow is a mysterious unveiling of an object which has only been described as "not a phallus" which is in a "secure, undisclosed location," during a protest of Dick Cheney in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Bet this one doesn't make the network news!]
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com