What's Going to Happen in Ames? Not Much

What's Going to Happen in Ames? Not Much

By Mark Salter - August 13, 2011

Hundreds of campaign reporters and drive-by cable pundits have descended on my native state this weekend for the quadrennial Iowa Republican Party fundraiser otherwise known as the Ames Straw Poll. Everyone seems certain that something is finally going to happen in this late-starting and still somewhat shapeless race for the Republican presidential nomination.

Reporters are happy that one or more of the story lines they’ve had ready for weeks will be proved prescient by whatever happens. Tim Pawlenty will either salvage his underperforming campaign by coming in first or a close second or he won’t, to the relief of pundits who had written his obituary after the first candidates' debate three months ago -- an event that hardly anyone who isn’t a reporter or a candidate remembers.

Michele Bachmann will either prove she is still running an unexpectedly disciplined campaign to be runner-up to the eventual nominee or she will show the first signs of losing her mojo as voters start to sense she’s as crazy as most of the press believe she is. Either Herman Cain or Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich will do slightly better than anyone expected and will get a tiny boost from the recognition that he is the also-ran most likely to stay in the race the longest. Ron Paul will have the most energized supporters there and he might even win the thing. He probably won’t, but if he does, woo boy, there’s a story no one has written yet: Ron Paul wins another straw poll; Tea Party libertarians on the rise in Republican Party.

The two candidates leading in most polls, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, aren’t participating in the straw poll, although Romney did mingle at the state fair and show up for Thursday night’s debate where -- once again -- he inexplicably emerged largely unscathed. Jon Hunstman debated, too, sounding reasonable if a bit out of place in a system dominated by ideological activists, and never quite answering the question of why political journalists promoted his candidacy so heavily before he announced it -- and have ignored it ever since.

This is getting to be a problem for other candidates, too. At Thursday’s debate, Santorum actually had to ask for a little airtime. And when Gingrich dismissed the journalist moderators' process questions, he was subsequently described by one Iowa columnist as “whiny” for his troubles.

Pawlenty finally showed he has the fortitude to be commander-in-chief by looking his opponents in the eye as he insults them, although it was Bachmann and not Romney in his line of fire. On Sunday morning, many accounts of the festivities in Ames will have a breathless quality about them, and the results charged with a significance that voters who weren’t bused into Ames, housed, fed and feted at the expense of one or another of the campaigns might find surprising.

The stock market might plunge another 500 points on Monday. Unemployment will remain above 9 percent. Businesses probably won’t start investing the huge reserves of capital they’re sitting on. Economic growth probably won’t experience a sudden surge. The nation’s debt will increase. It’s unlikely anything that happens in Ames will give consumers, even the relative few who will pay any attention to it, a big jolt of confidence in their future, which will convince them to start buying houses and cars and taking expensive vacations. These are the circumstances that will influence voters’ decisions in November, and no one will have any better idea after Ames than they had before Ames what that decision will be.

Fifteen months before Election Day, Ames will foreshadow something, and whatever that is reporters will have predicted it before it happened. We can be certain some campaigns will be happy and some won’t. After Election Day, we’ll have a better idea what Ames really meant to the governance of this troubled and divided country: Not much. 

Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain and was a senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.

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