So, what's up? Why would Colbert have targeted Perry and, in particular, drawn attention to his candidacy and asked people to write in the misspelled name of Rick Parry? And why pick the rather obscure venue of the Iowa straw poll? Answers after the jump ... so read on.
Let's begin with some background about the Iowa straw poll from the Des Moines Register:
The Iowa Republican straw poll has the power to alter the character of the 2012 presidential race even though it’s only a mock election. Candidates who fare poorly — at least in the eyes of the media — can go from Prince Charming to pumpkin faster than you can say Tommy Thompson. And sometimes the fairest of them all is the candidate who comes in second.There are six declared candidates (Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Tim Pawlenty and Thaddeus McCotter) and two big names not on the ballot: Mitt Romney and Rick Perry.
The no-shows: Candidates who don’t show up for the straw poll generally don’t perform. Campaign organization to drive turnout is vital. But as the national poll leader, Romney could overshadow one or more of the weakest contenders. Huntsman, who hasn’t appeared at all in Iowa, and Gingrich will have a harder time but any of the three could pick up some buzz from a breakout debate performance.
Perry: Another wild card is an organized write-in campaign for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who’s widely expected to run but isn’t yet in the race. Several PACs have bought ads, phone calls and grassroots efforts encouraging a write-in vote for Perry. Any appreciable show of support will make headlines and steal some attention from the established field.
So, there are two major candidates with differing strategies. Romney, despite winning the poll in 2007, decided to avoid it entirely. His reasoning:
John Stineman, a long-time Iowa GOP strategist, says the problem for Romney is that the expectations game is far tougher than it is for any other candidate. Romney poured tremendous resources into the 2007 straw poll in Iowa. He won, but it was as if he peaked too soon and lost the caucuses to upstart Mike Huckabee five months later.
Romney's message is that he's skipping all straw polls, and that he'll use his resources to run a campaign aimed at winning contests where the votes actually count.
no-loose strategy for dealing with the expectations issue.
But Perry won’t need to fret about a weak showing. While they’re sweating in Ames, he’ll be stealing national attention by making his first appearance in two other 2012 test states, South Carolina and New Hampshire. And then he’ll swoop into Iowa on Sunday, potentially overshadowing the straw poll winner.Given all this, what exactly is Colbert up to? To date, the Christian Science Monitor is the only media organization to seriously address the issue.
It’s not easy to thread the needle of expectations in Iowa. Perry found a way.
“If he gets good write-in support, that would be a significant boost. If he doesn’t get much, well, he can say, ‘I wasn’t campaigning. I haven’t even declared,’” said Steve Roberts, a former Iowa GOP chairman and longtime activist. “It’s kind of a win-win.”
Perry has no campaign staff in Iowa, but he does have organized supporters.
Americans for Rick Perry — bankrolled by Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons and other longtime Perry backers — has spent weeks talking up the governor at Iowa gun shows, county fairs and local GOP meetings.
The group’s Iowa campaign director, Craig Schoenfeld, who worked on George W. Bush’s successful Iowa caucuses team in 2000, tried to get Perry’s name on the straw poll ballot, but state party rules limit participation to candidates who have formally declared that they’re running.
As a concession, the Iowa GOP agreed to allow write-in votes for the first time since the straw poll began in 1979. That could set up a no-lose situation for Perry.
He didn’t have to spend money preparing for Ames. He won’t risk losing face. Meanwhile, Schoenfeld and a staff of eight, plus a dozen or more volunteers in pro-Perry T-shirts will mingle, hand out literature and try to build some buzz.
Is Colbert’s main target here the Texas governor, who is widely seen as intending to soon announce that he will shortly announce presidential candidacy plans, at some time in the future?
We’re not entirely sure. The ad seems to be operating on a number of levels of meaning, with a poke at Governor Perry being only one of its points.
There’s the title, first of all. It’s “Episode IV: A New Hope.”
Do we have to say what that refers to? OK, we’ll give you a hint. “Star Wars.” As in, it was the title of the first Star Wars movie, which was called Episode IV, because George Lucas already had the whole thing outlined in his mind, including the part where Harry becomes a Horcrux. Just ask any software engineer you know and they’ll explain it.
Secondly, the ad is really about ads, not about Perry per se. It starts with the quick cuts and sound-of-doom narrator of negative ads, warning of a “money storm” that’s gathering over Iowa. In that, it reminds one of the classic “demon sheep” ad that GOP California Senate hopeful Carly Fiorina ran prior to the 2010 election. (She lost.)
Then the Colbert PAC spot switches to the hopeful-ad style, with small kids saluting the flag, and so forth, and generally giving a feeling that Iowa can be saved by “our Super PAC money,” as opposed to that of the special interests.
And thirdly, there’s the meta-language. “Parry,” of course, means “to fend off,” as in fending off a fencing blow. So perhaps the Colbert folks here are subtly telling us all to fend off the corrupting influence of all partisan political speech, and make up our own minds about what direction the nation should follow, instead.
This is fine, but I think there is even more going on that they've suggested. Most obviously, he's continuing the process of drawing attention to the role of money in current US elections. In this sense the ads are a continuation of Colbert's highly publicized effort to create and get approval for his own superpak. In addition, from a purely self-interested perspective, he's flexing his pak's muscle and thus giving people an additional reason to donate.
But those factors don't touch the political implications of the ad. A number of commentators have suggested that, by drawing attention to Perry's write in campaign, the ads will actually help Perry. That seems unlikely to me. My sense is that the master of irony has found a way to out-fox Perry's no-loose strategy by creating an inevitable confusion between write in votes for Perry and Parry. No matter what the result, the precise number of votes for Perry will now be in doubt. While unlikely, there could even be a Florida like recount -- complete with dueling attorneys -- trying to distinguish "Perry" from "Parry", which should not count at all, etc. There is also the unlikely possibility that Parry could out poll Perry. Now that would be a straw poll to remember!