The media has been prepping us for Ames for weeks. They need a story, and this one has a lot of character (or should I say characters?). We have the Sarah Palin lookalike who acted as the voice of the Tea Party movement in last year’s midterms elections. We have the ten-term Texas Representative whose loyal fan base is more of a hipster libertarian movement than a strong grassroots coalition. We have the Minnesota governor who laid the groundwork for his presidential campaign for the last two years. And then there’s the former Massachusetts governor and Mormon missionary who might just have better luck in 2012 than he did in 2008. And, I haven’t even touched on the other Mormon or the Texas Governor who completely butchered the name of America’s second-favorite social network. The GOP field is a crowded place.
By now, any news junkie knows that Michele Bachmann won the “all-important” Ames Straw Poll yesterday in Ames, Iowa. Ron Paul was a close second, and Tim Pawlenty, who has long been trying to gain traction in the crowded GOP field, came in a distant third. But, maybe the real question is – does it matter? (This isn’t an article about how Ames can or cannot indicate future success; for a great, by-the-numbers summary of if Ames matters or not, check out this piece in the New York Times.)
It obviously mattered for the Pawlenty camp, who announced that he was pulling out of the race early this afternoon. But, long-time frontrunner Mitt Romney didn’t even bother heading over to Iowa, and now-candidate Governor Rick Perry wasn’t even on the ballot. (Romney came in seventh and Perry came in sixth as a write-in candidate.) And besides, the Ames straw poll is simply a convenience sample; the people who were voted chose to attend, essentially muddying the possibility that these results truly reflect Iowan voting preferences.
Essentially, Ames matters for the media, who are always looking for a new angle in our exhausting 24/7 news cycle. (Besides, there’s no DOW report over the weekend, so there was little coverage about our roller-coaster stock market.) I daresay the media even covered Ames more than they covered Thursday’s GOP debate. What did we, as American voters, learn about the GOP candidates over the weekend? In essence, nothing.
We learned that Iowans love Michele Bachmann, despite her controversial Newsweek cover this week. (Come on, Newsweek; we all know your circulation’s so far down that you had to do something to gain attention.) We learned that Mike Huckabee can still play bass. We learned that someone in the Santorum camp is great at alliteration, dubbing the family-made peach jelly he brought to Iowa “Pennsylvania Presidential Peach Preserves.” We learned that Palin still loves the spotlight, making an appearance at Ames even though she has yet to make any clear statement on her possible candidacy. Should we draw on any of these things when we go to make a decision at the polls in the spring? Absolutely not.
The media love events like Ames, which allow them to cover the same story with a slightly different angle. This coverage does not always constitute information. I mean, let’s take a brief trip to 2008 – what do you remember, besides chants of “Yes We Can”? The “lipstick on a pig” incident? Tina Fey as Sarah Palin? Obama Girl? – If you answered yes, you’re not alone. But these are just peripheral visuals, easier to remember and process than fiscal and security policies, and much easier for the media to cover as well.
Remember all you voters, Ames is only one of the first mostly-insignificant events in the long GOP (and then general) race. It takes time to take an informed stance, to decipher the important from the unimportant. After two years of high unemployment, possible government shutdowns, and a fluctuating global stock market, that time is now.