The results are in from the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa, and Michele Bachmann has emerged victorious with 4,823 votes. Ron Paul, the only bearable candidate in the running (*), finished a very close second with 4,671. A more distant third place went to alleged contender Tim Pawlenty, and the fourth slot went to Rick Santorum, whose campaign intended to make a strong showing at the straw poll but in a terrible mix-up bought tickets to the Gathering of the Juggalos instead. (**)
Does the Ames event mean much? The conventional wisdom is that it doesn't, but Nate Silver has made a reasonable argument that its predictive track record isn't bad -- not for forecasting the party nominee (who I strongly doubt will be Bachmann) but for showing who has a good chance in the Iowa caucuses. "A relatively low number of Iowans participate" in the straw poll, Silver acknowledges, "but that is also true for the caucuses, a cumbersome exercise which has notoriously low turnout. A candidate's financial position might help him to induce people to vote in the straw poll by buying their tickets and busing them to the event -- but money also helps to secure votes in a variety of ways when the real caucuses takes place. And a candidate's willingness to spend time in Iowa is helpful both in the straw polls and in the caucuses." So while Ames is by no means a perfect precognicator (***), it picks up "a variety of 'intangible' factors that don't show up well in other variables, and therefore serves a useful role as a leading indicator."
One variable that didn't show up in Ames: Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who entered the presidential race with a speech in South Carolina today. Perry didn't have an official presence at the straw poll, but he nonetheless attracted 718 write-in votes -- better than frontrunner Mitt Romney's 567.
* I can bear Gary Johnson too, but he didn't make an effort
** That was a joke.
*** Confession: I made that word up.