Ames Straw Poll

Iowa conservatives voted with their hearts Saturday at the Ames Straw Poll. Michele Bachmann won the contest, capturing 4,283 votes and cementing her status as a first-tier candidate for the Republican nomination. Ron Paul came in second. Tim Pawlenty finished a distant third. The presumptive front-runner, Mitt Romney, came in seventh.

Texas governor Rick Perry made a splash when he announced his entry into the presidential race 1,200 miles away in Charleston,South Carolina. Perry immediately became a Bachmann rival and a principal threat to Mitt Romney. As a write-in candidate in Ames, he garnered 718 votes and finished ahead of the former Massachusetts governor in the straw poll.

This year’s straw poll showed how passion, not organization, has shaped the GOP nomination process. Tim Pawlenty had the best organization on the ground and has prepared for this day for two years. He was the first to announce his candidacy and expected to do well here. His disappointing third place finish may signal the end of his campaign.

Michele Bachmann is one of the new entrants into the race, had little organization on the ground, but won the contest because she’s an unabashed conservative candidate who tapped into the Tea Party zeitgeist and has become its leading spokeswoman. Ron Paul, the libertarian Texas congressman, has one of the most passionate followings in Republican politics. He has won several CPAC straw polls in the last few years and nearly stole the show in Ames.

But neither Bachmann nor Paul figure to win the nomination next year. Both are representatives with no executive experience. Neither has a signature legislative accomplishment.

The evangelical Rick Perry will likely be Bachmann’s threat from the right, now that the Minnesota congresswoman has made Tim Pawlenty an also-ran. Both Perry and Bachmann will fight over social conservatives in Iowa and in South Carolina.

Perry is the longest serving governor in Texas history. He has presided over a growing economy and his state has created the most jobs in the country since the recession began in 2008. At yesterday’s announcement, he said he would get the nation back to work and get Washington off the backs’ of employers and citizens.

The big winner, one could argue, is Mitt Romney. While Romney polled badly Saturday, Perry’s entry into the race will divide the conservative vote. So far the former Massachusetts governor has run a general-election style campaign and positioned himself as the presumptive nominee. He has eschewed attacks on other Republicans and targeted President Obama directly, while other candidates have gone after one another.

Those attacks were on full display Thursday night at the Fox News/ Washington Examiner debate. Tim Pawlenty attacked Michele Bachmann, desperate to gain some traction and tear down the candidate who has taken so much of his support. Ron Paul and Rick Santorum quarreled over the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear aspirations.

Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, spoke up for the hawkish wing of the GOP. He seemed incredulous at Paul’s non-interventionist assertions. His notable performance in the debate elevated him to fourth place Saturday.

Santorum’s result is indicative of how weak the GOP field remains and how irrelevant the straw poll is (and the Iowa Caucuses are). Bob Casey, the uncharismatic son of the former pro-life Pennsylvania governor with the same name, humiliated Santorum in their 2006 Senate race.

Santorum’s 2006 race in blue-leaning Pennsylvania should show Republicans that he’s not a credible national candidate. His social views are anathema to the nation at large, but in-line with Iowa evangelicals.

He opposes gay marriage. He supports the teaching of intelligent design, rather than evolution, in public schools. But it was his involvement in the Terri Schiavo case that showed his commitment to social issues.

Terri Schiavo came into the national spotlight in 2005. She was a brain-dead Florida woman who relied upon machines and a feeding tube to stay alive. Conservatives (who want government out of citizens’ lives, except when they want to impose their social vision on Americans) strongly opposed taking Schiavo off the machines. Santorum said he wouldn’t allow Schiavo to be killed on his watch.

Santorum’s poll numbers plummeted after he got involved in the Schiavo affair in the spring of 2005. He lost by 18 points (59% to 41%) in the next election, the largest defeat of an incumbent since 1980.

But Santorum campaign shows a blue-print for success in Iowa. The caucuses are retail-politics; voters expect to shake a candidate’s hand, have the candidate in their home, church, or recreational center, and have the candidate’s grill for them at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. Santorum has moved his family to the state, shown his social conservative bona fides, and performed well in public debates. He has done the little things and Iowans gave his struggling campaign some oxygen.

Perhaps that’s what’s best about the Straw Poll: it gives oxygen to the never-ending presidential campaign season. The Straw Poll offers some clarity to the race. It begins to narrow the field.

Of course it’s not perfect. It’s a superfluous exercise. It’s less democratic than the Iowa Caucuses (which force voters to spend several hours caucusing, rather than punching a ballot). Staw Poll participants must pay $30 to participate.

Powerline’s John Hinderaker offered the best critique of this quadrennial event:

That the Iowa straw poll is accorded political significance is ridiculous. Not a single delegate is at stake, and the straw poll is even more laughably unrepresentative than an internet poll. The number of participants is absurdly small; the event can be won with fewer than 5,000 supporters. And everyone acknowledges that the straw poll is mostly an exercise in bus logistics and party-planning.

It is what it is: cat-nip for political junkies and prognosticators and a giant fund-raiser for the Iowa GOP. Reporters need something to talk about and new story-lines to emerge. Bachmann’s victory guarantees that.

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