The Spectacle Blog

The Politics of Free Food

By on 8.12.11 | 8:45PM

Ames, Iowa -- Late this afternoon Tim Pawlenty appeared a few blocks from the Hilton Coliseum on the so-called Greek Triangle, a patch of land in the middle of a three-way intersection in a neighborhood full of Iowa State University fraternity and sorority houses. Students for Pawlenty was holding a pizza party, attracting a healthy-sized crowd. Pawlenty gave a relatively brief speech (it would have been a mistake to go on too long with the 82 degree sun beating down) and encouraged the crowd, most of them ISU students, to turn out at the Straw Poll.

Are college students really interested in taking time out of a Saturday to think about politics? Though the crowd did seem fairly engaged, it was hard not to suspect that the vast majority of them had just stopped by for free pizza. Indeed, Pawlenty's pitch emphasized the free food that will be served at his tent tomorrow, where tickets to the straw poll will be given away; it is by now a cliche to note that this amiably undisguised bribery is a hallmark of the Ames Straw Poll. A Students for Pawlenty representative announced that they'd be running shuttles from the Greek Triangle to the Pawlenty tent every half hour for much of the day tomorrow; it will be interesting to see how full those shuttles turn out to be.

It sounds a bit silly -- come for free ice cream and vote for me! -- but this is what it means in practice when we say that Ames is a test of organizational strength. Ames is make-or-break for Pawlenty because if he doesn't make a splash, his fundraising will quickly dry up. Whether or not Pawlenty's undergraduate fans can get enough bodies in those shuttles to make a difference -- and, by extension, whether or not other parts of Pawlenty's organizational machine are similarly effective -- will be a signal to donors as to whether or not money given to the Pawlenty campaign would be wasted.

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