There are definitely things that are unrepresentative and over the top about the straw poll in Ames. But many are belittling the process simply because the media-anointed candidates either did poorly or did not participate and because conservative candidates did so well.
The fact is, Ames is a much better barometer of grassroots enthusiasm and organziational strength than most less colorful straw polls. To compete, campaigns have to move thousands of votes in a small state and get them to spend a Saturday at a political event. Most other straw polls, even the bigger ones, don’t require more than a few hundred supporters, all of whom are political activists, spread out across the country or an entire region attending an event they might have attended anyway. The turnout at Ames this year could be more than a tenth of the turnout for the Iowa caucuses, and Ames does give a glimpse of the level of commitment that is required to do well in the caucuses.
Some point out that Mitt Romney won the straw poll last time but didn’t get the nomination while John McCain bypassed the event and did. This ignores a great deal of context. The big story coming out of Ames last time was Mike Huckabee’s second-place showing on a low budget. Ames was the beginning of the end for Romney in Iowa and, as it turned out, in the primaries more generally. Ames helped McCain, whose campaign was not relying on Iowa at all, win the nomination.
And that’s what makes Michele Bachmann’s victory all the more impressive. She didn’t have the organization of Mitt Romney in 2007, Tim Pawlenty this year, or probably even Ron Paul. Her campaign may have bought a lot of tickets (more, as it turned out, than actually voted for her), but the get-out-the-vote effort was organic and her win was based on genuine grassroots enthusiasm. It suggests that perhaps people should not be so quick to assume her support will evaporate immediately upon the entry of Rick Perry, or even Sarah Palin, into the race.
Ron Paul’s showing is also likely to be dismissed on the grounds that he always does well in straw polls. But most of those polls require far fewer votes than Ames and have a much broader voting base. This was Paul’s best performance with the voters of a single state with a large number of candidates actively competing. If 153 of the tickets they bought for people who wound up voting for other candidates had wound up in Paul supporters’ hands, they’d have won the whole thing.
This brings me to the last thing the media hates about Iowa: the strength of social conservatives. That’s what helped propel Bachmann to victory, what led Paul to talk more about abortion than war, and what caused Rick Santorum to finish fourth. Finishing behind Santorum has to be a disappointment for Herman Cain, however. Cain’s organization in Iowa has clearly taken a hit and he has obviously receded since Bachmann entered the race. Cain was also hurt by the Fair Tax supporters’ decision to scale back their involvement in the straw poll after going all out for Huckabee last time. The reception given to Cain’s speech suggests things could have been different.