16 August 1999
Minor mishaps: Through the grapevine
Synopsis: Someone slipped Russert some terrible data as the scribes asked what Ames really meant.
Commentary by Tim Russert, David Broder
Meet the Press, NBC, 8/15/99
The Iowa straw poll
Editorial, The Washington Times, 8/13/99
No, it wasn't quite Woodstock at the Iowa Straw Pollnot with
Debbie Boone in the Steve Forbes pavilion. But one thing is clear
about Crystal Gayle: she's all through as a straw poll vote-getter.
The coal miner's younger daughter sang for Lamar Alexander, the
two-term governor and former Ed Sec. But it must have made her
brown eyes green to see the vote that her warbling inspired: Alexander
finished sixth, far behind Deb (and The Dub), and will soon be
dropping from the GOP chase, as pundits were advising on Sunday.
(Meanwhile our old friend Orrin Hatch had Vic Damone in his
tent. It almost seemed he'd adopted an old Clinton maxim: "We
don't have a person to waste.")
But as the pundits scoured Iowa looking for meaning, we couldn't
help chuckling, here at DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters, at something
Tim Russert soon said. Russert was talking to David Broder about
what the whole shebang told us:
RUSSERT: David, one tenth of one percent of Iowa Republicans
voted last night. Is it appropriate that this kind of event have
such importance on the selection of a president?
And our analysts were muttering and shaking their fists at
the absurdity of such a procedure. But when Broder crafted a polite
reply, a different mood swept through our halls:
BRODER: I think it's not an ideal system, Tim, but it is a
testThese folks thought about what they were going to do, the
folks that came here, 25,000, they heard the candidates and it
was significant, I think, that clearly both Governor Bush and
Steve Forbes paid for a lot of tickets for people to come in here
who, after hearing the candidates, voted for somebody else.
Bush had a black-hatted outlaw band playin' hard in his tent.
They weren't answering the cocaine question either.
Anyway, Broder had rounded his figure up; there were 23,685
official votes cast in Ames Saturday night. And, based on Russert's
introductory bite, that would produce a startling fact: there
are over 23 million registered Republicans in the state of Iowa
alone! Why, it's no wonder at all that Vice President Gore is
showing up poorly in national polls! Or that census funding has
become an emergency, with run-away population like that.
Careful analysis soon revealed exactly what had happened. Pundits
chatted at the Iowa rockfest, trying to read the poll's tea leaves.
And as is almost inevitable in settings like that, some bad data
began going around. Second-tier candidates tried to make the event
seem even sillier than it actually was. And credulous punditsas
is their wontwere soon repeating their spin points as fact!
Various versions of Russert's formulation were hitting the
airwaves all weekend. For example, here's the Washington Times
on Friday morning, before any votes had been cast:
THE WASHINGTON TIMES: Less than one-half of 1 percent of Iowans
will be involved. About 12,000 of them, accompanied by as many
as 500 journalists, will converge on the Hilton Coliseum on the
campus of Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.
You know. Or something like that.
Anyway, by the time Russert spoke on Sunday morning, it was
clear that many more Iowans had taken part than had ever done
so in the past. (Roughly 12,000 had voted in 1995.) Presumably,
that increased the event's predictive power, which is normally
quite close to zero. There might have been an actual story in
asking why so many Hawkeyes showed up. But someone had slipped
the host some bad data, and the host seemed to swallow it
Tomorrow: Talk about your lousy data! We start an incomparable
four-part series on coverage of the alleged budget surplus.