The straw vote lesson wasn't learned by GOP



WASHINGTON -- One of the more puzzling facts of American political life is that neither party ever seems to learn anything from the opposition. There is no clearer example than the decision by some Republican state party organizations to conduct straw votes on preferences for the party's presidential nomination in 1996.

The first of this campaign was held in Louisiana at a party convention in Baton Rouge last week. And the big winner in this "test" was Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, who personally called delegates -- a few even on Christmas Day, according to reports from the convention -- to seek their support and came away with 72 percent of the vote.

Gramm called it only "one small battle in a long war," and a number of Louisiana party leaders were quoted as saying the results meant absolutely nothing. But the fact is the vote was conducted and several candidates, including Lamar Alexander and Patrick J. Buchanan as well as Gramm, turned up for what will prove to be only the first of a long series of such cattle shows.

If the Republicans had considered the experience of the Democrats, they might not be wasting their time. More than a decade ago, in the 1983 run-up to the 1984 campaign, Democratic candidates competed in one straw vote after another all over the country -- California, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Florida and Maine getting the most attention.

And when it was over, the exercise had been totally meaningless. When it came time to choose convention delegates in 1984, there was not a single state in which the winner of the straw vote carried either the primary or the precinct caucuses. The unmistakable lesson was that the hard core of political activists who turn up at a state convention a year or two before an election is quite a different group from those voters who take part when serious decisions are made.

The most stunning example was in Maine. Former Vice President Walter F. Mondale campaigned in 35 different communities and spent at least $250,000 for an Oct. 1 straw vote at a state convention of only 1,817 delegates. He won that vote but when the precinct caucuses were held early in 1984 -- five days after the New Hampshire primary -- he was buried by Gary Hart, who hadn't even competed in the straw vote.

The straw votes did have some temporary value for lesser candidates. When, to the stunned surprise of almost everyone in politics, then-Sen. Alan Cranston of California won in Wisconsin in June, he found it somewhat easier to raise money for his campaign. But his success didn't last; he was forced to withdraw the morning after finishing with less than 5 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary a few months later.

In fact, the Democrats might have learned some lessons along the way. When, for instance, Mondale failed to beat Cranston in Wisconsin because so few of his supporters bothered to show up at the state convention, it might have been reasonable to infer that the former vice president might have a problem inspiring much zeal among his potential backers in other states as well. As it turned out, that was demonstrably true by early 1984 and almost croaked his campaign before it ever got off the ground.

It also can be argued that frontrunners can use the straw votes to their great advantage by forcing lesser candidates to waste money that may be needed later in the campaign for the nomination.

One of the reasons the Republicans are ignoring the Democratic precedent and playing the straw vote game is that the press plays along with the gag. The Baton Rouge convention last week, for example, attracted a respectable corps of reporters and camera crews all rushing to broadcast the news that there was nothing really meaningful going on there but, incidentally, the winner was Phil Gramm of Texas.

Similar exercises are already in the works in several other states later this month and throughout the year.

They may have nothing to do with who finally wins the nomination next year, but that's a lesson the Republicans have to learn for themselves.

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