Scenes from a Southern Straw Poll

“Judges should be completely separated from partisan politics!” exclaimed a member of the Georgia Court of Appeals while speaking at the Annual Georgia GOP Fish Fry and Straw Poll in Perry, Georgia on Saturday. Though met with a fairly high level of applause compared to the majority of the points made by the guest speakers, the irony implicit within the above claim was just one of the many interesting observations I was able to make while attending the event.

Among these observations were the variable levels of organization achieved by the different campaigns at the event. Some campaigns in the Republican Presidential Primary went entirely unrepresented, completely forgoing any concerted effort to actively seek support or press at the event – the Santorum, Huntsman, McCotter, Roemer, and Johnson campaigns all opted not to set up tables (or failed in having any activists in the state of Georgia willing to set up a table).  Romney’s table consisted of a single supporter with no materials on display except a modest campaign sign and a sheet for individuals to place their personal information if they wanted to join the campaign. Moving up the organizational scale, Bachmann, Iowa Straw Poll winner and supposed member of the “Top Tier” in this presidential primary, had a relatively small number of activists and an unimpressive display compared to the remaining campaigns: Gingrich, Perry, Cain, and Paul.

All four of these campaigns were well organized and aptly prepared for the event, indicating that these campaigns possessed at least some interest in the results of the poll (or, at minimum, in improving the name recognition of their respective candidates). The Perry campaign, the latest addition in the 2012 primary, had a table set up by what appeared to be college-aged individuals, proudly displaying the U.S. flag, the Georgia state flag, and the Gadsden flag on the wall behind the table (Perry has quite openly tried to associate himself with the new Tea Party Movement – whether this effort is proving effective or not remains to be seen).

Herman Cain’s campaign also had a very prominent display which appeared to focus on improving his name recognition, seeing as most of the visuals were simply “CAIN 2012” signs of varying sizes displayed on the wall and on the table. As with all of these last four candidates, Cain’s table had at least some sort of trinket and literature to pass out such as buttons and pamphlets.

Newt Gingrich’s campaign, in a similar manner, seemed to be relying on name recognition. As the former Speaker of the House, Gingrich need only attempt to remind the Republicans of his former leadership position hope that it is enough to carry him to victory, or at least that is the theory. For example, Gingrich had the largest all-text banner at the event, with his first name comprising of letters approximately a yard in height and then with the year 2012 displayed immediately beneath. If all the attendees were looking for was an association between a candidate and some “better time” in the past, then the display was effective. If the attendees wanted more substance (as their straw poll results at least partially indicate), then it was not effective.

The final table of the four, Ron Paul’s, appeared to have the most materials available for the volunteers manning the booth. Campaign regalia ranged from the typical palm cards and campaign buttons to a Paul family holiday cookbook and “Ron Paul 2012” balloons for small children who, too young to discriminate between the candidates themselves, effectively managed to make their parents get a balloon for them even if the parent was wearing the button of another candidate. As Paul’s supporters (many of whom had connected prior to this event over social networks) conversed below, a helium-filled blimp drifted above bearing the question “Who is Ron Paul?” – the question serves both as a homage to Paul’s 2008 campaign slogan and to Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged in which the question “Who is John Galt?” is repeated throughout the book while referencing the novel’s hero.

Not to be outdone, the Cain campaign bused supporters to the event in order to have them participate in the poll. According to reports, Cain’s official campaign bus carried about twenty-five supporters to the fish fry while Cain is still in Israel. (Paul’s campaign had called supporters sometime before Saturday offering free tickets to those willing to attend – the success of this effort remains unknown to me, as most of the Paul supporters present had bought their tickets well in advance.) However, the nominal award for highest level of organization and effort at the straw must go to the Gingrich campaign, as Newt Gingrich himself attended the affair.

Following the invocation, Pledge of Allegiance, and National Anthem, and a short statement by former Gov. Sonny Perdue (the original patron of this annual event), the master of ceremonies invited Newt Gingrich onstage to give a speech. I admit that I was fairly interested in what he had to say – following his performance at the Iowa debate, I was expecting a rather fiery speech from the former Speaker. Unfortunately, the fire was never lit. Throughout his speech, Gingrich appeared tired, unenthusiastic, and just generally dry even when compared to the few media appearances of Thaddeus McCotter. Generally straying away from substantive points about his own policy, he instead focused on what the current administration is doing incorrectly while also listing off current bills in the House of Representatives that he would like to see passed so that they blame falls squarely upon the Democrats if it is not passed in the Senate or signed by the President. Other than his remark against the creation of the new “Super Committee” in Congress, Gingrich’s speech elicited only moderate applause, including those points in which he attempted to connect himself with President Reagan and the interests of America’s servicemen and women.

Following Gingrich’s speech (the only one that received even a minor level of attention), a string of the Georgia’s GOP leadership went on stage to share their thoughts – Sen. Chambliss, Sen. Isakson, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, and the judge from the introduction were the only other memorable speakers. Each spoke for little more than five minutes, and each was generally ignored as the attendees who were more interested in talking to one another. Applause was only given when a speaker stepped up to the microphone or when he concluded his speech, with one exception – Sen. Johnny Isakson. Supposedly in response to Isakson’s vote in favor of raising the debt ceiling, he received absolutely no attention from those present excepting those who desired to express their dissatisfaction through booing him as he was introduced. Sen. Isakson is not up for reelection for another five years.

Before the ballots were tallied, the MC thanked everyone for attending and gave “shout outs” to the campaigns present at the event. Beginning with the Paul supporters, thunderous applause erupted anytime a campaign was mentioned by the MC until it gradually diminished into virtual silence. (This was really the first time that I noticed that Bachmann, the “Tea Party favorite,” was virtually unrepresented by the members of the crowd.)

After what seemed like an unnecessarily long time to count just a few hundred paper ballots, the MC returned to announce the results. By this time, most people had already left and only the Paul, Cain, and Perry campaigns had any substantial level of support remaining, but the MC stressed all the same that no one leave, oddly adding that she wanted to make sure that no one got angry at the results.

“In first place with 232 votes: Herman Cain.” Jubilation erupted from the Cain supporters, thrilled that they had proven that, at least in Georgia, their candidate is very viable. But that alone was not comparable to the words that came next: “In second place, with 229 votes…” Some candidate had achieved a virtual tie, which would undoubtedly entitle that candidate to a share of the excitement experienced by the Cain campaign: “… Ron Paul.” And again, massive applause exploded from the respective supporters of the candidate listed. As it seems, the only thing delaying the results of the poll was the numerous recounts performed by the officials at the event to ensure accuracy in results.

Just as when the MC had listed the different campaigns individually, the level of applause slowly diminished as the poll ranking decreased. Perry, though coming in third, still had a very strong showing amongst attendees and received 179 votes. Gingrich, not far behind, received 162 votes. In fifth, however, came Romney with a scant 51 vote from Georgia Republicans (Romney, I believe intentionally, has avoided putting excessive effort into straw polls). No, this poll does not serve as the death knell for Romney’s candidacy any more than the Iowa Straw Poll did, but it could very well mark the impending end of another Republican’s campaign.

Unless he is merely staying in the race to increase his chances of receiving an offer to run as Vice President, Newt Gingrich’s campaign can rightfully be written off as unsustainable. If Gingrich is unable to organize enough support in his home state to achieve more than fifth place in a relatively small straw poll, especially when he is attending the event himself, then it is extremely unlikely that he will do markedly better outside of Georgia. In the absence of Herman Cain, Gingrich could still potentially be a relevant player in this race, but because Cain is stunting his home-field advantage, I expect Gingrich to drop out of the race in the foreseeable future.

Other than that, this straw poll will be just one of many over the course of this election season – important for the attendees and important for the media for a brief span of time, but ultimately forgotten in a matter of weeks. All the same, it was a pleasant event to attend. Everyone was cordial and respectful to one another, including the Ron Paul fans who have developed (or been given) a reputation for being overly rambunctious in their decorum. I even spent the great deal of my time in line waiting for fried catfish speaking to a Cain supporter, with whom I agreed on many issues if not on which candidate I felt was best to solve those issues. There were no outbursts of anger, no racist or sexist remarks toward speakers or attendees of either gender or any race, nor any of the other charges often levied against politically active conservative groups. And, most importantly, there was no one saying that anyone else should “go straight to hell.”

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