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Magazine / Common Sense

Comedy or Tragedy

Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann are pictured during the Iowa GOP/Fox News Debate on August 11.(Charlie Neibergall-Pool/Getty Images)

photo of Matthew  Dowd
August 14, 2011

AMES, Iowa -- As I approached the Hilton Coliseum at Iowa State University where the Republican straw vote took place Saturday, I noticed a sign saying the Shakespeare play Macbeth would be here soon. It seemed a fitting harbinger: a play about ambition and the twists and turns of fate. The three witches' refrain of  “Double, double, toil, and trouble, fire burn, and cauldron bubble” bounced around in my head as made my way into the cauldron of activists rallying for their candidates.  

The Ames straw vote of 2011 is now in the books, followed by the departure of Tim Pawlenty from the race on Sunday morning, and it gives us some indication of where this presidential race may now be heading. There are some interesting takeaways, some of which feel a little Shakespearean.

1.  Michele Bachman’s slim victory in the straw vote was historic. Here is a candidate who just got in the race, with little campaign experience and organization, and she beats every other person in the field. In the history of the Republican presidential nominating process, no woman has won one of the elimination rounds -- primary, caucus, to straw vote. Bachmann benefited from feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, who paved the way by fighting for women’s equal rights, but she is on the opposite side on nearly every social issue. Bachmann is now more of a force in conservative politics than Sarah Palin. Palin waited too long and now she has been eclipsed. 

 

2.  Ron Paul’s close second finish (153 votes shy of victory) is fascinating. Here is a Republican who is anti-war, pro-legalization of prostitution and drugs, and who basically thinks we did Iran wrong and should allow them to have nuclear weapons -- and he nearly wins the Republican Party’s straw vote!  It shows that Republican voters are not nearly as pure on all issues as many people think, and that if you have an authentic anti-Washington rhetoric and are genuine in your beliefs, you can do rather well. It’s a lesson that we should pay attention to voters, rather than conservative leaders or commentators  -- or radio hosts who say they speak for conservative voters.

3.  The results of the straw vote once again show that if you have a choice between passion and organization, pick passion every time. The top two candidates at the straw vote did not have the organization the other candidates had, but they definitely had the commitment and passion of their followers. As we look forward, it is important to keep this in mind in how we assess the prospects of the remaining candidates.

4.  For all intents and purposes, this has become basically a three- or four-person race: Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Ron Paul. Pawlenty is out. While other candidates may stay in, this field has definitely been winnowed, and rather quickly. The debates coming up will be very important as these four candidates position themselves against each other, and seek to find voters. Further, as the other candidates drop out, watch whom they endorse, where their staff goes, and which direction their voters head. 

5.  The temperature of the political environment among Republican voters is increasingly angry and hot. Candidates who have cool demeanors or images, or who don’t arouse emotions (like Pawlenty and Huntsman), are in real trouble. This should be a real concern going forward for Romney, who has a businessman’s logical  approach to the campaign and who, when he uses heated rhetoric, doesn’t always sound genuine. Republican voters are going with their hearts right now, and not necessarily their heads. 

6.  My expectation is that the Republican establishment and many of the leaders around the country will begin to have discussions about coalescing around either Mitt Romney or Rick Perry. Most believe Bachmann and Paul have no real chance of winning the presidency, and  nominating either could easily help reelect President Obama. Watch for signs of movement to start pushing activists to get behind Perry or Romney, and possibly some Republican super PACs involved in doing just that.  

Many pundits have questioned whether this straw vote will matter, or whether it will really give us the direction for the race. I am one who believes it gives us a good indication of what is to come, though politics  -- like life -- has a great tendency to be unpredictable, and to quote Macbeth, maybe “it is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

We will know which is which in due course, my friends. 

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