September 2, 2011

The Iowa Straw Poll: Top-Flight Candidates, Serious Journalism and Us

In and Out of the Quad-Cities
Contributed by Gail McPike and Toni Hall

A couple of weekends ago, Iowa enjoyed the international news spotlight. It didn’t matter what channel you tuned into – it was all Iowa all the time. Somehow, the people of Iowa have positioned themselves as the bellwether of American Politics. Pundits of every persuasion rattled on about the up and coming Straw Poll to be held in Ames, Iowa. For journalistic types, it was like swarming flies to sweet molasses. And ever wanting to stretch our chops as hard (or hardly) news reporters, we decided it was our patriotic duty to provide our loyal readers with a firsthand look at the spectacle.

So armed with a worn-out reporter’s pad and comfortable shoes, we loaded the car and sped off across the corn tasseled topography of Iowa – our destination the campus of Iowa State University and the 2011 Republican Straw Poll. And, thanks to Current Trophy Husband Phil’s quick thinking – we had tickets to the whole enchilada.

We had our appetite whetted for all the trappings of big-time news commentators. Penthouse suites, journalist junkets, sponsored press conferences swimming in champagne and sampling southern-style sandwich hors devours danced like poll numbers in our head. But somewhere just west of the big Mesquaki Casino reality started to set in. There wasn’t a motel room for miles. The once-a-lifetime eclipse of the Iowa State Fair, Straw Poll and New Student Week at Iowa State had sent the hotel room indicator well past ‘E.’ But lack of hotel rooms can’t stop the likes of this dynamic duo.

Our great friends, Mark and Cathy Martens, live in Ames. The price of lodging in their guest bedrooms matched our budget, and we arrived just in time for Friday night supper. As we dined on Cathy’s famous creamed-poblano peppers, black beans and smoked beef brisket, we readied ourselves for the coming day. Simultaneously viewing all three of the major news networks – don’t try this at home, we’re trained professionals – we fortified ourselves with sangria and planned out our strategy for the big day.

How would we handle our interview questions? Would we go with the straight ahead shot like Roger Mudd in the old days of Meet the Press or slip in the stealth follow-up question? Would we dress like Republicans to blend in? Can Toni interview like Barbara Walters? Being front page reports for 50+ Lifestyles is a harrowing burden.

Because, we reconnoitered the grounds and planned for a great parking spot just out of sight of the Network TV cameras before the crowds arrived, we moved swiftly into position. Shoving our way past TV heavyweights like Candy Crowley and Mike Huckabee and outrunning Fox’s “Campaign” Carl Cameron, we worked our way up to the event headquarters. Plunking down the July Issue of 50+ Lifestyles, we asked for our press credentials. Through some unknown (and yet to be explored) act of fate, the officials failed to recognize our
official membership in the sisterhood of reporters.

This kind of stuff might stop the average “stringer” from carrying out their duties – but not the case for Gail and Toni. We quickly revamped and came up with a new strategy. We would attend incognito – disguised as work-a-day voters out attending for fun.

We made our rounds through all the candidates’ tents, big and small. These were circus-sized tents equipped with food, soft drinks and a band. There were thousands of variations of Red, White and Blue. Bumper stickers, buttons and balloons were placed into every outstretched hand.

The food was old-fashioned Americana. Ron Paul had Barbequed Pork and Fire Broiled Corn. Tim Pawlenty’s tent featured the food of fellow Minnesotan Famous Dave. Candidate Herman Cain, who once served as the President of Godfather’s Pizza, provided (you guessed it) pizza.

Imagine, free food forked over by the plate-load, circus like barkers, speeches, and music. Remember Buddy Holley’s band, The Cricketts? We saw Mike Huckabee jam out with them on Rick Santorum’s stage. And, CTH Frank was enthralled with the righteous guitar playing of lesser known candidate Congressman Thaddeous McCotter of Michigan.

After enjoying some music and a delightful free lunch, we made the rounds of the information booths. Our friend, Mark won the jackpot – with four free T-shirts each extolling the virtues of some good cause. Bumper stickers, battery operated fans, hats, pins and pens were flowing like liquid out of a broken basement water line. Historical character look-alikes provided photo opportunities with the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Honest Abe.

We had fun and potentially influenced the turn of history. We collected a couple of nice new ecologically friendly shopping bags, and we had cookies with Barry Goldwater Jr. Maybe this reporter life isn’t all that bad.

Have a great September – be an informed voter – we’ll see you this Fall.