AMES, Iowa — Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) claimed victory at the Ames straw poll on Saturday, barely besting Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) by a 152-vote margin.
Bachmann won with 4,823 votes, or 28.6 percent of the total votes cast. Paul garnered 4,671 votes, or slightly less than one percent less than Bachmann’s total.
Tim Pawlenty placed a distant third with 2,293 votes. His disappointing 13.7-percent finish is not good news for the former Minnesota governor, who devoted much of his campaign time and resources to Iowa throughout the summer.
Bachmann’s win propels her already building momentum in the Hawkeye State. Iowa Republican Party officials announced that 16,892 people voted in the straw poll, thousands of whom stood in line outside Bachmann’s tent for hours in the summer sun. The Ames straw poll is the traditional kick-off of the presidential campaign season in Iowa, and often serves as a harbinger for the Iowa caucuses. Three of the past five straw poll winners have gone on to win the caucuses later that cycle.
But most of all, the event was a test of organization and energy for the nine candidates who appeared on the 2012 straw poll ballot. Both Bachmann and Paul proved they could turn out voters in the state five months before the caucuses.
Paul, in particular, proved to have a more organized operation than his last straw poll effort in 2007, when he placed fifth. Before 7 a.m., the Congressman’s campaign signs lined the road on the way to the Iowa State University athletic complex that hosted the event. By mid-morning, empty buses formerly filled with his supporters stood idle in the parking lot.
Even though he placed in the top three, Pawlenty’s performance is likely to fuel speculation that his campaign is losing steam.
Pawlenty’s campaign tried to spin the results in its favor, issuing a press release proclaiming it moved, “from the back of the pack into a competitive position for the caucuses, but we have a lot more work to do.”
Former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) came in fourth with 1,657 votes, followed by former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain, with 1,456 votes.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry was not on the ballot, but scored 718 write-in votes hours after he announced his candidacy in South Carolina in the middle of the voting period.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney had 567 votes, followed by former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) with 385 votes, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman with 69 votes and Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (Mich.) with 35 votes.
Neither Huntsman nor Romney attended the event or actively campaigned for votes. Romney spent about $1 million in 2007 to win the straw poll but has focused his efforts on New Hampshire this time.
Throughout the day, it was clear that Bachmann supporters were out in full force.
In the hours leading up to the announcement of the results, Bachmann supporters paraded around the Hilton Coliseum parking lot in orange shirts, cheering the lawmaker. Throughout the day, Bachmann’s backers were treated to country music star Randy Travis, corn dogs and meat sundaes — provided they voted for the Congresswomen. Her army of volunteers repeatedly announced their voting requirement on a megaphone, although there was no way to enforce the rule — unlike the caucuses, the straw poll is conducted by secret ballot.
Separately, attendees voted in a corn kernel poll, which measures the support of each Republican by the number of kernels in their respective Mason jar. By late morning, the kernel level in Sarah Palin’s jar rose just above the best-known GOP candidates — even though the former Alaska governor has not declared her intentions yet for 2012.
One by one in the afternoon, the Republican hopefuls addressed the crowds gathered in the Hilton Coliseum.
Paul won the loudest response from his supporters stuffed into stands of the basketball arena. His backers streamed through the aisles before his speech, pouring into the seats in front of the podium. When Paul finished, the crowd went wild and chanted his name.
Meanwhile, Perry had impeccable timing more than a thousand miles away in South Carolina. He announced he was running for president at a conservative blogger conference within minutes of the start of candidate speeches on the arena stage.
Throughout the weekend, Iowa Republicans chided Perry for attempting to overshadow their event, though he plans to head to Waterloo, Iowa, on Sunday.
“I understand we’re going to have Gov. Perry here in Iowa tomorrow, and it’s my understanding that his advisers understand the importance of the Iowa caucus,” Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn told Roll Call minutes after Perry announced his candidacy. “I suspect we’ll see Gov. Perry here early and often.”
But when asked whether Perry called to make amends, Strawn smiled coyly and said, “I’ve been in conversation with his advisers and I know we’ll see him tomorrow in Waterloo and I know he’ll be here at the end of the week.”