Republican Party of Iowa's Official Presidential Straw Poll
Ames, IA   August 14, 1999
Copyright 1999 Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action.  All rights reserved.
Back "...a huge benchmark test."
--Kayne Robinson
Chairman, Republican Party of Iowa



On Saturday August 14, 1999 the Republican Party of Iowa held a fundraiser in Ames.  Tickets to the event cost $25. Thousands of people, arriving by the busload from the four corners of the state, converged on Ames.  Six hundred journalists from more than 250 news organizations were on hand to report on the activities of the day. 

Needless to say, this was no ordinary fundraiser.  It was the Ames straw poll, the most important single event on the 1999 calendar for the Republican presidential candidates.  Nine of the ten GOP hopefuls participated. 

The Ames straw poll loomed as a major focus from June onward.  The candidates spent a lot of time in Iowa in June, July and August; several embarked on multi-week bus tours.  There was also a fair amount of rumor mongering and jockeying for position amongst the campaigns.  And the straw poll is a major logistical exercise: identify supporters willing to go to Ames, transport them, feed and entertain them, and send them home happy.  The campaigns hope that many of these people will be the precinct leaders when caucus time comes in late January.

In contrast to the 1995 straw poll, when campaigns bused in supporters from out of state, voting this time was limited to Iowans only.  The state party made the change to increase the credibility of the event. 

The first part of the day, straw poll participants made the rounds of the campaigns' pre-event spaces.  The nine campaigns set up big tents in the parking lot outside the Hilton Coliseum and provided food and entertainment for their supporters.  A festive, carnival-like atmosphere reigned. 

At 2:00 p.m. the doors to the Coliseum opened.  At 4:00 p.m. the speechifying began.  After a powerful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner and introductory speeches, the nine candidates, starting with Alan Keyes and continuing through to Lamar Alexander, delivered their ten-minute speeches. From the floor, supporters in each campaign's designated 100-seat cheering section erupted with sign-waving and yelling at their favored candidate's applause lines. 


These stump speeches, delivered to the audience gathered at the Coliseum in Ames and to the wider audience on C-SPAN, allow for comparison of nine Republican candidates who participated.  The candidates were addressing the same audience from the same stage.  What issues and themes did each choose to emphasize?  How much of the focus was on experience and qualifications, how much of the speech was devoted to digs at Clinton-Gore, how much to barbs at the other Republican candidates, and how much to Iowa concerns? 

Realistically, few votes at Ames were swayed by the speeches; most people likely stuck with the campaign that bought their tickets and brought them there.   Voting started as soon as the doors opened.  In fact, the busiest voting period was before the speeches, from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. when long lines developed.
Shortly after 9:00 p.m., by which time the hall had largely emptied, Iowa GOP chairman Kayne Robinson and Iowa State Auditor appeared on stage to announce the results.  About 24,000 Iowans had cast votes: the results were, of 23,685 valid votes: Bush 31.3%, Forbes 20.8%, Dole 14.4%, Bauer 8.9%, Buchanan 7.3%, Alexander 6.0%, Keyes 4.6%, Quayle 3.9% and Hatch 2.4%. 

Spokesmen for the campaigns were on hand to assist reporters in understanding and interpreting these results.  At least five of the nine campaigns declared some form of victory.  The big winner of the day, the Republican Party of Iowa, took in about $1,000,000 (from slightly more than 37,000 tickets sold, the auction of pre-event spaces in the parking lot, and for use of tables inside the Coliseum). 

Did this exercise really mean anything? 

  • It marked the first time all the candidates (except for holdout Sen. John McCain) were brought together on one stage, providing an opportunity for comparison.  Annointed frontrunner Gov. George W. Bush made his first, and likely only venture, into straw poll territory at Ames; his participation virtually guaranteed the presence of the rest of the field. 
  • Observers had predicted that some candidates who fared below poorly, i.e. below expectations, would be forced to drop out of the race.  That did happen, as Lamar Alexander withdrew on Monday immediately following the straw poll, and Dan Quayle's prospects were dampened.
  • The tremendous turnout--about 35,000 people set aside a Saturday to attend the Ames gathering--was one of the surprises of the day.  Predictions were that perhaps 15,000 people would vote.  In 1995 about 11,000 had voted, and in that straw poll the campaigns were allowed to bus in supporters from out of state.  This time only Iowans could vote.  About 24,000 did.  In a time when cynicism and apathy are of great concern, mixing politics with a little fun may not be such a bad idea.

Heading home 
"A straw vote only shows which way the hot air blows."
                                                attributed to O'Henry

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