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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 Poll—not 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 pundits—as is their wont—were 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 whole.


Tomorrow: Talk about your lousy data! We start an incomparable four-part series on coverage of the alleged budget surplus.