Being in politics, said Eugene McCarthy, is like coaching football: You have to be smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it is important. The game of presidential politics is especially arcane in the cunning weirdness of the Ames straw poll, a quadrennial fundraising event for Iowa's Republican Party.
Republicans praise entrepreneurship, and in Iowa they practice what they preach. The poll, first staged in 1979, occurs Saturday. It will record the presidential preferences of persons transported to Ames by competing candidates, who will also buy their supporters' $30 tickets. It would be naughty to compare this to a poll tax, but it does purchase the right to vote. Supporters will be fed, flattered and entertained in spaces the candidates rent for that purpose, this year paying a minimum of $15,000, and up to $31,000 for the best one.
Ron Paul paid $31,000. He wins many straw polls because his intense supporters nurse an implacable grudge against the Federal Reserve Act of 1913.
This year, the Ames contest of most consequence is between the tortoise and the hare -- between former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and current Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann. He would be much easier to elect than to nominate; regarding her, reverse that.
If Pawlenty's methodical long-march-through-the-cornfields strategy pays off in Ames -- that is, if he gets perhaps 4,000 votes -- he can partially upend the national media narrative that has cast him as already a spent force.
If Paul finishes first or second, the political community will shrug: There he goes again, the Babe Ruth of straw polls. If Paul and Bachmann, in either order, capture the two top spots, Pawlenty's campaign may be mortally wounded. If another candidate propelled by an intense faction -- former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a favorite of evangelicals who in 2008 were 60 percent of Republican caucus participants -- also finishes ahead of Pawlenty, the Ames circus will have destroyed the only one among the six candidates who bought space -- and therefore are permitted to speak -- at the event who has a realistic chance to be nominated and defeat President Obama.
The six who have bought space are Pawlenty, Bachmann, Paul, Santorum, Herman Cain and Michigan Rep. Thad McCotter. Three other announced candidates are also on the ballot: Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman. Adding to the zaniness of the Ames exercise is this: Polls indicate that the last piece of the Republican nomination puzzle, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, is nipping at the heels of front-runner Romney. But Romney has not bought space in Ames and Perry is not on the ballot -- although write-in votes are permitted.
The Ames poll has not reliably predicted the winner of Iowa's caucuses five months later, and the caucuses have been an uncertain trumpet regarding the winner of the nomination. In 1979, George H.W. Bush won the poll and the subsequent caucuses but lost the nomination to Ronald Reagan. In 1987, Pat Robertson won the poll, Bob Dole won the caucuses and Bush won the nomination. In 1995, Phil Gramm and Bob Dole tied in the poll, then Dole won the caucuses and the nomination. In 1999, George W. Bush won the poll, the caucuses and the nomination. In 2007, Mitt Romney won the poll, Mike Huckabee won the caucuses and John McCain won the nomination.
In 2011, a purchased, or at least rented, small portion of the nominating electorate of the state that ranks 30th in population can profoundly influence the coming political choices of voters in the 49 other states. You can't make such stuff up. And you wouldn't want to.