At the intersection of highways 71 and 9 on the outskirts of tiny Spirit Lake, Iowa, sits Godfather’s Pizza, a mobster-themed restaurant chain where the lunchtime buffet of wings, Jell-O, and iceberg lettuce draws mostly retirees.
Not one person in the restaurant has heard of Iowa’s iconic presidential straw poll, that quadrennial media obsession being staged in Ames on Saturday. Nor have they heard of Herman Cain, a Republican presidential contender who happens to be the former CEO of Godfather’s, the man credited with turning the chain into a popular pizza powerhouse.
“That’s bad that I don’t know that,” says cashier Lisa King sheepishly. “I don’t pay attention to politics.”
Jeri Lowry is one of a dozen women who come to the restaurant each week to gossip, eat, and watch CNN on a television set hanging from the ceiling. “We get the buffet so we can eat more,” says Lowry. “We come at quarter to 11 and leave at quarter to five.”
When asked about the Ames poll, the women at her table break out in laughter. “Nope. Never heard of it,” says Anita Dean, who worked down the street for 39 years at Pure Fishing. As for Cain she asks, “Is he from Spirit Lake?” The women erupt into laughter.
The explanation may be partially related to geography. Spirit Lake, in Dickinson County (pop. 1,000), is nestled near the Minnesota border, 170 miles northwest of Ames, which is a half-hour’s drive from Des Moines.
But the disconnect is telling for other reasons as well. The non-binding straw poll doesn’t exactly cater to the masses. Instead, candidates pay big bucks to bus in supporters and lure them with free food and entertainment--such as country sensation Randy Travis, who is being brought in by Michele Bachmann. It has mushroomed into a huge political event, the unofficial start of the 2012 campaign season.
Bachmann could get a major boost by winning; Tim Pawlenty’s struggling candidacy could be fatally wounded by a poor showing. Mitt Romney is so wary of the contest that he will make only a brief appearance on Saturday and hasn’t purchased one of the high-priced booths. And Cain is hoping to generate some momentum with a surprisingly strong finish. Little wonder that the former pizza mogul, one of the least-recognized candidates in a Gallup survey, recently released an online video called “Who is Herman Cain?”
Despite the high stakes just days before the straw poll, the candidates trying to attract the attention of ordinary Iowans have their work cut out for them. Folks in the state care passionately about the issue at the center of the campaign—the ailing economy—but many seem, at this early stage, not to connect it to the White House aspirants themselves.
Across large swaths of Iowa, the straw poll simply does not resonate the way it does inside the Beltway or with the national media. At last count, 335 journalists from around the world had requested press passes to cover the poll. Of roughly 3 million Iowans, only 10,000 to 13,000 people are expected to attend. Unlike the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses early next year, this is an insider’s contest, a niche event.
Religious conservatives play a major role in Iowa Republican politics, which often leads to a heavy emphasis on social issues. But candidates focused on winning Saturday’s poll should know there is one looming concern that overshadows all else: jobs.
In nearby Lake Park, Jennifer and Steve Krummen, lifelong Republicans, own and operate Arco Dehydrating, the state’s only alfalfa processing plant. Jennifer’s father founded the family-run business in 1947. The Krummens say their phone has been ringing off the hook with robo-calls from Bachmann’s campaign.
“They told us they would provide transportation to Ames,” says Jennifer Krummen, 68. “That’s a 3-1/2-hour trip one way. We don’t have time for that.” They will concentrate instead on farming their 1,900 acres of alfalfa, 1,600 acres of corn, and 1,400 acres of soybeans.
The Krummens pay attention to politics, but are more concerned about the impact of the wobbling economy on their family. “Our nation is at a crossroads,” says Jennifer, whose son is struggling to find construction work in Minneapolis. “The stimulus helped for a little, but the money went to the big guys.”
Their family is looking for a candidate who can create jobs. Jennifer was a Romney “fan” four years ago. Steve is “impressed” with Cain. Their daughter, Stacie, is a recent president of Dickinson County Republican Women and had been selected to greet Sarah Palin when she visited a local Wal-Mart earlier this year. If time permits, they hope to attend Cain’s rally Wednesday at the Parks Marina Barefoot Bar in nearby Okoboji.
The economy is usually the main topic of conversation for Lowry’s weekly gathering at Godfather’s Pizza. “Now the Dow is down 500 and our stomachs are turned upside down,” she says while watching a CNN reporter on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
“What’s upsetting,” adds Dean, “is that companies are hiring a lot of temps. You work nine months and they let you go so they won’t have to pay benefits.” In this Republican-dominated county there is only one Barack Obama supporter at the table, who urges her friends to “give him a chance.”
Iowans want a candidate who can make a difference in the economy. If any of the GOP contenders has a convincing message on that score, it hasn’t yet reached the rolling cornfields of America’s heartland.