There's Nothing Halfway About the Iowa Way to Treat You, When We Treat You, Which We May Not Do At All
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 in Ames.
** That was a joke.
*** Confession: I made that word up.