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The Ames Straw Poll and Coverage of Ron Paul: More status quo, but why?

August 17, 2011

The Ames Straw Poll has now come and gone, and there was no lack of coverage of the weekend festivities and result of the straw polls. Well, unless you are Ron Paul. The congressman from Texas came in second in the straw poll, garnering 28% of the votes to the winner Michele Bachmann’s 29%. Here are the full results.

2011 Straw Poll Full Results (Votes, %)
1. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (4823, 28.55%)
2. Congressman Ron Paul (4671, 27.65%)
3. Governor Tim Pawlenty (2293, 13.57%)
4. Senator Rick Santorum (1657, 9.81%)
5. Herman Cain(1456, 8.62%)
6. Governor Rick Perry (718, 3.62%) write-in
7. Governor Mitt Romney (567, 3.36%)
8. Speaker Newt Gingrich (385, 2.28%)
9. Governor Jon Huntsman (69, 0.41%)
10. Congressman Thad McCotter (35, 0.21%) 

The story-lines that emerged from the weekend were Bachmann’s win, and the reshaping of the Republican primary race with a top tier composed of Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry. Much attention was given to Bachmann’s straw poll win, maybe deservedly so, but perhaps the most glaring thing to emerge from the weekend was the conspicuous lack of coverage about Ron Paul and his strong performance in the straw poll. It seemed as if the second place showing had transformed him into the invisible man, he was nowhere to be seen on the Sunday talk shows or headlines, and barely managed a scant reference in most of the articles. This lack of coverage eventually became so conspicuous that it became a story itself, and John Stewart was at his best when lampooning, well, pretty much everyone:

A myriad of explanations were given for the media snub, as Steve Kornacki at Salon puts it:

Now let’s talk about Paul, who also put a major effort into the straw poll. But unlike Bachmann and Pawlenty, he didn’t really have much to prove. Why? Because the political world already knows that Paul has an army of unusually loyal and dedicated supporters who are willing to show up in large numbers at events like the straw poll and producing impressive-seeming vote totals for their candidate. They’ve been doing this for years now. Remember when Paul won the straw poll at the 2010 CPAC conference? Or in 2011? His supporters are very good at this kind of thing, channeling their unique passion into “money bombs,” Internet poll victories, and strong performances at straw polls and other events where a devoted minority can have an outsize influence.

This line of argument seems to imply that because Paul is viewed as having a slim chance of ultimately winning the Republican primary, he is not deserving of media attention. This argument has merit in theory, there are many candidates in the multitude of elections in America who are not serious, and covering all of them would eat up too much of the costly and finite space and time that media companies have. This argument starts to lose credibility when moving from traditional media like television or newspapers to the online component, where the transaction costs of adding this material would be negligible. More interesting than any monetary or logistical argument is the claim that the reason Ron Paul in particular gets scant media coverage because he is inelectable. This naturally causes one to wonder, what then, is the threshold? Surely Ron Paul is more electable than Rick Santorum and Herman Cain, as he outperforms them in the polls and handily beat them in the straw poll. Yet the two candidates who finished fourth and fifth at Ames, respectively, seemed to recieve more media attention than the man who recieved more votes than the two of them combined at Ames.

Rick Perry and Mitt Romney were also determined to be among those who came out ahead at Ames, despite not fully participating in the straw poll. Granted, this was part of their strategy, in Mitt’s case because Ames was a pyrrhic victory for him in 2008, and Perry because his announcement on the same day deftly drew much of the attention away from Ames and focused it squarely on him. Whatever their strategic reasons for choosing not to participate in the straw poll the fact remains: in the one measurable competition between the candidates thus far, Ron Paul came within 1% of the vote of winning.

The other argument employed to justify the lack of coverage of Ron Paul is that it was only a straw poll, which is hardly predictive of the way the election would play out on a national level, and that the process is so distinct from the way voting works in the elections that is is hardly a good indicator. This argument too holds some degree of validity; Iowa is hardly a microcosm of the nation at large, or even of the republican party. The process of the straw poll, in which campaigns can buy and distribute tickets as well as provide transportation, is far removed from the comparatively quick voting process.

If this were truly the reasoning though, then all of the results of the straw poll should be uniformly dismissed then. It is inconsistent for Michele Bachmann’s narrow victory to propel her to the newly emerging top tier of the primary, or for Rick Perry’s write in lead over Mitt Romney to signal that he could potentially emerge as Romney’s strongest challenger, then at the same time dismiss Paul’s performance.

Tim Pawlenty was arguably the most organized on the ground in Iowa, and Michele Bachmann is most in tune with the conservative flavor of the Republican party to be found in the state, and she has hometown connections to the state to boot. All of this would seem to balance the claim that Ron Paul’s fervent core of libertarian supporters distort straw polls in his favor.

Could it be a liberal media conspiracy, designed to keep Paul out for some reason? In short, no. This articulate piece from the Huffington Post would suggest otherwise.

No, it is not because he is unelectable that he is not recieving any attention, and its not because the Ames straw poll is suddenly meaningless. Is it because his ideas are so far from the status quo that they make the establishment uncomfortable, whether they be the media or the other candidates, or the leaders of the Republican party? That remains to be seen as the rest of the primary season unfolds.

It would be a great shame if that was the case, as his ideas and the way he could reshape the political discourse for 2012 and beyond could be the most important contribution of Paul’s long career in Washington.



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