For the punditry, the Iowa straw poll is written off as a cattle show that means very little. Indeed the exercise in Ames has often seemed the political equivalent of NFL exhibition games, fun but meaningless. In 2007, it picked Mitt Romney, who didn't even bother to compete in 2011. Moreover, the political environment had shifted so far to the right that few "moderate" conservatives bothered to try their hand in the game.
This says a great deal about where the Republican Party is heading. Until 2008, the moderate wing of the GOP mastered the caucus and the straw poll. Mike Huckabee, defying the usual trend, defeated Romney even after he won the straw poll. George W. Bush left Steve Forbes and Pat Buchanan far behind in 1999. Bob Dole won Iowa's caucuses in 1988 and 1996. This seems to suggest that the non-right wing of the party is getting much smaller.
Michelle Bachmann narrowly won the straw poll, but this thin win held no comfort for the party's establishment. Ron Paul, like Bachmann, a tea party favorite, finished second. Including Rick Santorum and Harman Cain, the right garnered more than 70 percent of the participants' approval. Despite all the hype about Rick Perry's announcement, the tea party enjoyed a fine day in Iowa.
This was something that commentators failed to comment upon. Instead it was simply written off as a right-wing circus full of characters not potential presidents. But what was lost was that the winners were unabashedly conservative, no "compassionate" attached as with Bush in 1999. Straightforward and honest opinion, which drew a great deal of support. Instead the press focused on Perry, approvingly applauding his shift away from social issues.
Perhaps the press is fighting the last wars. All the cries of former backers of John McCain for "no labels" in politics underestimate the passion of this newest batch of right-wing Republicans. Surely none of the top vote getters in Iowa would get the nomination, much less the presidency, they suggested. The old bosses would lead the faithful back to nominate another Bush-style candidate.
This means most have misjudged the tea party or its diversity of opinion. They are not only convicted but organized. Bachmann's people had passion and easily trumped the cardboard campaign of Tim Pawlenty. This crowd will not be easily bought off - they know what they want and are increasingly skillful in how to obtain power. But the media fails to appreciate their savvy. When their "leaders" tell them whom to back, they will line up like lemmings or that's the bet made by Beltway commentators. It looks like a bad bet.
Even Perry who is liked will not be anointed their candidate without scrutiny. He speaks like a tea partier and governs like a business progressive. He is a southern-fried Romney, with a bit more right-wing flavoring. Texas' deficit and the fact he was then Tennessee Sen. Al Gore's 1988 coordinator in the Lone Star State will raise more than a few eyebrows. When conservative "Blue Dogs" staged a hostile takeover of the Texas GOP, they kept some of their Democratic style and substance.
The Bachmann and Paul candidacies suggest the conservative status quo is not good enough. Particularly Bachmann is in the contest to win it, not to make a point. She represents a faction that is fed up with the moderate way of the party. Paul as well denounces Wall Street as not an adversary of government but a dependent. And even if they both fall short, they advance their cause considerably.
The big money is on that the South Carolina primary will vanquish the tea partiers if they survive Iowa and New Hampshire. But South Carolina can be tricky. John Connally and Phil Gramm failed miserably. Connally, a Texas Democrat turned Republican, was routed by Ronald Reagan in 1980 despite an endorsement from Strom Thurmond. Sometimes the smart bet is not the best bet, and 2012 is shaping up in a fashion to confirm that supposition.