On the Ground at the Ames Straw Poll

Full disclosure:  I volunteered for the Michele Bachmann campaign at the Ames Straw Poll.

I thought I would share with you a few pictures and just a little insight into what it looked like “on the ground” this past Saturday at the Ames Straw Poll.

My day began early in the morning, as I made the 90-minute drive to get to Ames in time for the volunteer check-in at the Bachmann tent at 8am.

The first thing I saw walking in from the parking lots down the west side of the Iowa State Center complex was a strong presence by Mike George’s “Strong America Now” group, who had a big tent and great signage just to the west of the central voting area.  There were many people wearing their T-shirts all day.

Ron Paul paid top dollar for the A-1 real estate area in the Iowa State Center for this event.  Voting is in two places, the Scheman building just next to their area (left here), and in Hilton Coliseum.  All prospective voters will generally walk by this area to either vote or get to the other candidate’s tents.

One of the more remote tents (technically) was Herman Cain’s, seen here just before 8am.  He had a rather modest, but respectable setup.  I was told after the event that they had pre-ordered 500 pizzas for his tent, and had to order at least 100 more to meet demand.  That was all hearsay, but I saw lots of people holding slices of pizza as they walked past the Bachmann tent.  I never got to this section the rest of the day so I can’t speak to how busy they truly were, but the voting results were at least decent for them.

Michele Bachmann had a large air-conditioned tent, with a “over here!” balloon flying above it.  The A/C turned out to be not as valuable since the weather turned out to be stunningly pleasant.  For people walking up the central avenue from the lots, it was a great spot as it was right at the end of that walk.  That avenue was also lined with most of the rest of the non-candidate vendors.

Here was the scene as I walked up to check in with volunteers.  There was a genuine Founder present, complete with English accent!  Nice touch.  The gentleman in pinstripes in the foreground flew in from California to volunteer, he was fantastic.  Not pictured, arriving just a bit later was a whole busload of volunteers from the Oral Roberts College Republicans (Tulsa, OK) – they were terrific and a great help.

Directly adjacent to Bachmann’s tent was Thaddeus McCotter.  They had 2 panel vans plastered with signs when I arrived, a stage, and a kiddie bounce house.  More pictures later.

GE/tpi (Newton, IA) had this huge wind generator fan blade there, with a stage for people to come up and write on the fan blade.  I thought it was a pretty cool idea.  If you live in Iowa, a regular occurrence is to see large windmill parts riding on huge trucks on the state and federal highways.

Rick Santorum’s tent is seen to the left here.  They had hamburgers on the grill and you could see that wonderful smoke from quite a long way off all day.  They had a pretty good spot for real estate.  It was further from the main avenue, but very close to the Hilton voting entrance.

I didn’t get any pictures of the Tim Pawlenty tent.  It was located pretty remotely in a separate corner from the rest of the tents.  If you drove into the Iowa State Center from the north or happened to walk up the east side of the complex from the south, you would not miss the Pawlenty tent.  They had a huge sign promoting their catering from Famous Dave’s, which would have been great if I’d had a chance to get over there!  My “Bachmann Volunteer” T-shirt might have drawn me a lot of funny looks, however.

Fred Karger actually had about 6 people there around a little table promoting his “candidacy” as well.  I didn’t bother to take a picture.

Rick Perry did have a handful of supporters that I personally saw handing out flyers and generally promoting him most of the day during the voting period.  “Americans for Rick Perry” was not allowed to have an actual table at the Straw Poll by a (close) ruling of the state committee, as well as his name on the ballot.  I think the state committee wanted to respect the announced campaigns that were spending time and resources in Iowa, which of course was at the expense of a “draft candidate” campaign table.  This was, however the first time a “write-in” line was added to the ballot.

No presence: Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman.

Here is the first shot I have of people entering the main avenue (looking south), between the Ron Paul area and Hilton Coliseum, roughly 10:45am.  Voting was from 10-4.  My job ended up being to walk up and down this avenue and near the Bachmann tent, carrying a large sign like you see here to guide voters to the tent, and later to guide groups with tickets to the voting area.  We also had several golf carts ferrying people from the charter bus area to the Bachmann tent site.

The registration booths at the Bachmann tent were steady and strong from 9am and really did not slow down until after 3pm.  We had about 20 people registering voters and getting them tickets to vote.

About 11:15am, I took a group of voters over to the line for the Scheman Building polls in search of the shortest line.  The line over there was crazy long.  We took the rest of our voters to Hilton for the balance of the day.  I had to snap this picture of the Paul area, plus the AARP tent in the right foreground.  Also I had to get a picture of their “The Sliding Dollar” kiddie slide.  Priceless.

This was the best shot I could get of the food line for the Bachmann tent, roughly 11:45am.  I am standing very near the Santorum tent, and the Bachmann food is all the way in the back of this picture just to the right of the two white balloon pillars.  Most of the people facing away from me in this picture are in line for Bachmann’s food, the people going to the right I think were going to Santorum’s tent.  Someone told me the wait for Bachmann’s food was as much as 3½ hours.  She had the Iowa Machine Shed restaurant cater a BBQ beef sandwich, mashed potatoes/gravy, salad, hot dogs, corn dogs, sno cones, ice cream cups, and bomb pops.  I think that was it!  I never got any of the food, because I felt guilty cutting this line even though I was volunteering and had permission!

Here is a “short” line at the Hilton entrance, about 11:45am.  From 10-11 the line was 3x this long, but the rest of the day it pretty much looked just like this at Hilton.  The Straw Poll volunteers did a great job!  Turnout was the heaviest since the 1999 Straw Poll, which was also heavily contested between mainline candidates.

Here is the NRA booth area.  They were giving out hunter’s orange baseball caps, signing up members and of course giving out information.

This was the tent for the Iowa Gun Owners group.  They were signing up members, giving out T-shirts and also asking people to sign a petition for “Constitutional Carry”.  In 2011, Iowa became a “shall-issue” concealed-carry permit state thanks in large part to the efforts of this group, but they are continuing to work hard to increase gun rights in Iowa.

Steve King (not pictured) also had a table here, since for the 2012 cycle this area will now be in “his” Congressional district due to re-districting.  He gave remarks on the main stage.

I snapped this picture of a nice man handing out papers promoting his ideas about government.  Priceless.  Also not pictured: at least one Abraham Lincoln, and one more 18th Century participant.

I happened to walk by when Chuck Grassley was walking on the main avenue and got a picture of him talking to constituents.  He also spoke on the main stage.

The main stage in Hilton Coliseum had a program with remarks from all the participating candidates, plus local Republicans.  In order they were:  Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn, Governor Terry Branstad, Rick Santorum, Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds, Ron Paul, Congressman Steve King, Tim Pawlenty, Senator Chuck Grassley, Michele Bachmann, Congressman Tom Latham, Thaddeus McCotter, and Herman Cain.

Here is another picture of the main avenue, this time standing further north and closer to the Bachmann tent, now roughly 2:45pm.

Michele Bachmann appeared on stage in her tent with Randy Travis just after 3pm. I have no idea how many people were packed into the tent, but we essentially had to close the entrances by 1pm and they opened the large panels opposite the stage so people could see and hear from outside.  I stood by the doors for quite some time helping direct people around to the back.  During that time I met a large group of Women Legislators (I wish I could remember the exact name) who were there from the east coast (NJ, VA, etc) and were there with John Fund.

After her tent program was over, Michele led a caravan of any remaining voters over to the Hilton entrance.  I went in to vote myself at about 3:55pm.
The polling equipment was leased from Story County, so it was regular election equipment.  The volunteers checked for a valid Iowa ID, punched your ticket, and gave you the ballot and instructions.

This might be the “Home of the Walking Taco” but I didn’t see any being served today.  Fill in the dot on the paper ballot, and feed it into the electronic ballot scanner.  That’s it!

Thaddeus McCotter performing on his stage just after the polls closed.

I hung around the Bachmann campaign bus until about 7pm, after Michele Bachmann was finally declared the winner and she came out to greet supporters.  I got to shake her hand and got an autograph on my “volunteer” T-shirt.  She was very appreciative and told me to ‘keep working hard in Iowa’ and I returned the encouragement to her.  The Bachmann staff was incredibly pumped up, and very proud to have gotten this win after just 5 weeks of campaigning in Iowa.  They worked many long hours in the campaign office calling supporters and undecided voters to get turnout to the Straw Poll as high as possible.

All in all it was a fantastic day for Republicans.  Lots of money was raised to benefit Iowa Republicans,of course. It was a wonderful experience to watch this beautiful example of American democracy in action.  I think most people came with their mind made up whom they were voting for, but others came to ‘take it all in’ and get more information about the candidates.  Several people asked me to give a personal testimonial why I was for Michele Bachmann.

This was my first Straw Poll experience, so I didn’t know what to expect.  Generally it was just great to see so many conservatives out supporting or learning about the candidates, learning about conservative advocacy groups, and just enjoying a beautiful day in Iowa.  I met quite a few people from out of state that came to volunteer or simply experience this process.  That was certainly a little surprising to me.

What does it all mean?
As I have said elsewhere, what this means to the Presidential candidates is totally subjective.  The Ames Straw Poll is “just a straw poll” at the end of the day, but it is the biggest and possibly most contested straw poll in the nation.  Every cycle it will mean something different.  It is a political data point that can be important and even critical to some campaigns, and possibly meaningless to others.

To someone like Tim Pawlenty who has been campaigning hard and spending cash in Iowa for months, it was devastating.  For Michele Bachmann, to win after just five weeks of campaigning was clearly a key to validate her place on the top line of nominee contenders.  Further, I think she has to be the current favorite to win the Iowa caucuses, even though the correlation between those two events is highly limited, at best.  Rick Santorum’s relatively “strong” showing in the Straw Poll seemed to give their campaign encouragement to continue.  Conversely, I have to think the Herman Cain campaign was disappointed, even though they got nearly the same number of votes as did Santorum and seem resolute to continue on.  One would think Herman Cain needed to finish in the top three to sell validity on the campaign trail.  For a campaign that has long been campaigning in Iowa, this cannot exceed their expectations.  Even though Mitt Romney did not participate at all (likely having more to lose here than gain), you have to wonder what they must think of Rick Perry’s write-in campaign netting more votes than did Romney, who was at least on the ballot and had campaigned extremely hard in Iowa for the last election cycle.

Clearly with Rick Perry entering the race this weekend, the campaign looks very different today, in conjunction with the result of the Ames Straw Poll.  Michele Bachmann might now be the supposed front-runner in Iowa, but I suspect Rick Perry will certainly have something to say about that.  They appear to be the two candidates who will best fight to overcome the inertia of Mitt Romney’s past campaign here.  It will be interesting to see if Romney now runs more heavily here, or if he will continue to try and firewall New Hampshire and onward.

However the Ames Straw Poll did still play its small part at threshing some of the grain from the chaff.  It was great political theatre and a fine day to witness a little bit of “democracy in action.”

Maybe in a future Straw Poll I will be less of a volunteer and instead come to enjoy the whole spectacle a bit more fully, who knows?  By working hard for a candidate, I certainly missed out on some of the action in other places.  However I certainly don’t regret working a long day to help out the campaign of a conservative I really like, and it is all the more pleasing to have that effort rewarded with a victory.

I will definitely seek to keep coming to this event in the future; it is a lot of fun for a political junkie like me!

Cross-posted at BA Cyclone.

Final Ames Straw Poll results (from Iowa GOP):

Place Candidate Votes Percentage
1 Michele Bachmann 4,823 28.6%
2 Ron Paul 4,671 27.7%
3 Tim Pawlenty 2,293 13.6%1
4 Rick Santorum 1,657 9.8%
5 Herman Cain 1,456 8.6%
6 Rick Perry (write-in) 718 4.3%
7 Mitt Romney 567 3.4%
8 Newt Gingrich 385 2.3%
9 Jon Huntsman 69 0.4%
10 Thaddeus McCotter 35 0.2%
Scattering 218 1.3%
Total 16,943 100%