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10 things I learned in Iowa during the Ames Straw Poll

by Myra Miller

Last week I went to Iowa for the Ames Straw Poll and State Fair. Here are ten things I observed during my time there.

1. The political discourse that matters to voters really is about issues rather than personality. Charisma helps, but I heard very little in Iowa about which candidate is the most inspiring, handsome or charismatic. Republicans don’t expect to compete with President Obama on personality; they expect a conversation about issues, namely the economy and jobs. Fox took some heat for not pressing for more follow-up from debate candidates about their specific plans on the economy.

2. Even though it’s August, voters are paying attention and listening. Not just straw poll activists in Iowa – everyone. With President Obama’s job approval around 40% according to the latest Gallup surveys, there is no question that the electorate is shopping around and open to another candidate.

3. Ground game isn’t everything. Grassroots organization in Iowa is a cottage industry, but it doesn’t guarantee success as Tim Pawlenty discovered. An August 12 Politico article quoted the co-chair of Pawlenty’s Iowa campaign as saying, “There’s a clear strategic mission: We have an open checkbook to do what we need to do on the ground.” Two days later, Pawlenty was out of the race.

4. During my time in Iowa, I heard much more about jobs, economy, taxes and energy than repealing health care. In a Fox interview with Kathie Obradovich of the Des Moines Register, she said, “[Iowa voters] want them to touch all the hot button issues but when it comes down to it, what they want to care about is the economy, creating jobs and getting government out of the way.” The implications of the new health care are tied to jobs and the economy, but I was surprised that I didn’t hear more about health care.

5. Fresh off the debt ceiling rancor in Washington, straw poll activists seemed genuinely willing to take chances on a default if that is what it took to control spending. I can’t speak quantitatively, but based on my observations and reaction to the candidates’ statements, default wasn’t nearly as scary a prospect as what we have heard in DC.

6. Republican candidates (and everyone who attended in Ames) should remember that the straw poll electorate isn’t representative of the electorate. It reminds me of the adage “noone I know voted for Nixon”. One can get caught up in the heady feeling that everyone around them agrees on their pet issue, but what happens in Ames doesn’t stay in Ames, thanks to cable news. Independent voters are watching too.

7. Having attended the Ames Straw Poll in 1999, I don’t know how we ever got through past straw polls without Twitter. It was the only way to keep track of the coverage, events and Palin’s whereabouts at the State Fair.

Now for the random.

8. If you want to get retweeted about almost anything, include the words “Ron Paul”. It’s like putting “Justin Bieber” in a tweet – people will follow.

9. Straw poll weather in August is like late September to those of us from the South. Warm weather birds, bring a sweater.

10. Contrary to my preconceived notions about fried butter, the butter is melted and absorbed into the bread so there is no biting into a deep fried stick of solid butter. The way to spur economic growth? Invent the next fried food innovation to sell at next year’s State Fair.