Iowa straw poll symbolizes today’s elective process: those with money get more say in the voting

The first vote of the presidential election cycle took place this past weekend, and Michele Bachmann squeaked out a 400-vote (one percentage point) victory over the septuagenarian libertarian Ron Paul.   The question on everyone’s tongue is if the straw vote of just under 17,000 Republican regulars and enthusiasts in Ames, Iowa will change the complexion of the race.  Will other also-rans besides Pawlenty drop out?  Will contributors line up now to fill Bachmann’s coffers? 

Instead of analyzing the results of the straw vote, I want instead to examine its place in American politics, especially as a symbol of how money has subverted the one-person one-vote principle of representational democracy.

We start with two simple facts, reported by a number of sources: Straw voters had to pay $30 a piece to vote, and the campaigns of the various announced candidates “footed the bill, throwing in a lunch of barbecued pork, grilled hamburgers and ice cream as an enticement to spend part of the day in Ames.”

A little simple arithmetic reveals that Michelle Bachmann probably paid about $150,000 directly to people to have them vote for her.

And make no mistake about it, the paid-for-in-full Iowa straw voters have more of a say in who will be elected president in November of 2012 than any other voters do. 

The concept that applies to the situation is the tabula rasa, or blank chalkboard.  In philosophy, tabula rasa is the theory that individuals are born without built-in beliefs or knowledge and that their knowledge comes from experience and perception.  A corollary of the tabula rasa theory is that the first mark on the blank chalkboard of the mind tends to have more meaning to people than later marks, because that first mark is the only thing on the chalkboard at the time, i.e., the only experience or facts known by the person.

The application in communications is that when considering any issue, most people begin with a clean slate.  The first facts and opinions they hear about the issue tend to shape their reaction.  I have applied this principle for more than 25 years in advising companies and nonprofit organizations how to respond to a potential crisis or get people to believe their side of the story in a crisis or regarding an important issue.

For example, my public relations firm was asked to publicize the position of a well-respected private college after a large Pennsylvania healthcare system tried to steal its name and use it for its new medical college.  We decided to announce the college’s lawsuit late in the business day so that the healthcare system had no time to respond.  The first day articles all told the story from the college’s point of view using the college’s facts.  The result was that the public and elected officials all came to the immediate conclusion that the healthcare system was in the wrong.  We were first out of the gate, and therefore created the reality accepted by the world.  After days of bad publicity for the healthcare system, the lawsuit was quickly settled out of court to the benefit of the college.  We won by putting the first mark on the tabula rasa.

In a profound sense, the Iowa straw vote is the first mark on the tabula rasa of the presidential political season.  No matter how small a mark it is, it takes on an unwarranted large significance by virtue of there being no prior indicator of true voting sentiment.   So this first straw poll vote is more influential, by definition.  Over time, the significance of the Iowa straw vote will fade, as more and more votes are taken in the various states.  But for the time being, the actions of less than one thousandth of one percent of eligible U.S. voters are driving the early phase of the election cycle, in which we discover which of the candidacies is viable.  Some candidates will soar and other fall by the wayside based on how campaign contributors and other voters react to the Iowa straw poll.

Yet only people who paid could vote, and those who did vote mostly received the voting fee from the candidate for whom they voted. 

The Iowa straw vote thus symbolizes the whole electoral process:  people with money have more say in who is elected. 

The candidates with the most money:

  • Always get more coverage by the news media, always get more positive coverage in early media reports and always are considered frontrunners even if early polls suggest otherwise.  Proof positive is this year.  The news media has already decided that Mitt Romney (and now the other money-bags, Rick Perry) are frontrunners, and took the Huntsman candidacy quite seriously simply because Huntsman has hundreds of millions of his own money to spend, if he chooses to do so.
  • Can afford to stage more special events and thereby get even more news coverage.
  • Can do more advertising and hire more people to go door-to-door, make phone calls and attend rallies.

What that means is that to win an election, the candidate must either have a lot of money or appeal to those who give a lot of money to campaigns.  A candidate may have views that reflect the overwhelming majority of citizens, for example Dennis Kucinich, and yet never get a chance to be taken seriously, because the views he/she favors are not the views of political donors.  It has been many an election since the winner of a presidential election spent less money than his opponent. 

Most people can only vote.  Those with money to spend can also influence how we sort out candidates and issues, and thereby limit our choices to those candidates that support their positions on the issues that they care about, even if those positions and issues do not represent the will of the people.

There has always been a bias towards money in American politics, but it’s gotten a lot worse since our right-wing Supreme Court overturned laws limiting corporate campaign contributions last year.  And it will continue to get worse until we can pass campaign financing laws that will survive the gauntlet of corporate toadies that now represent our Supreme Court majority. 

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