Michele Bachmann Wins! Scenes from the Ames Straw Poll Circus

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The victorious Minnesotan's tent was thronged, Ron Paul's support proved deep as expected and Tim Pawlenty's many green T-shirts couldn't mask his soft support

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AMES, Iowa -- Women wearing sign-boards that say, "I am a person" over an image of a fetus. The ubiquitous Fair Tax people. The AARP. The National Association for Guns Rights' development director barking into a bullhorn against "Hillary Clinton's small arms treaty" and "the international destruction of the Second Amendment."

The Ames Straw Poll is a test of Republican presidential contenders' organizational strength that has a strong track record of accurately predicting the winner of the Iowa caucuses -- since 1979, that man's always been an Ames No. 1 or 2 finisher, Nate Silver reminds -- if not the GOP nomination or the presidency.

It's also a zoo, the political equivalent of the Iowa State Fair down the road in Des Moines, a festival of Bar-B-Q and T-shirts, bumper stickers and personal mobility devices. Some 700 members of the press reportedly signed up to cover it this year, and an eye-ball estimate of the conservative throngs by midday suggested to me attendance was far larger than in 2007, when 14,302 cast votes. Of course, not everyone here voted. Some just came for the scene.

Here's some of what they saw:

BACHMANN SWAMPS

"I have been to 4 #iastrawpoll events and never seen a line as long as Bachmann's," Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad's Communications Director Tim Albrecht tweeted midday.

That seemingly endless line was the subject of much speculation, snaking out from her tent and curving back around until it nearly intersected with the food line at former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum's tent on the other side of the Hilton Coliseum on the campus of Iowa State University. At the line's front, once could actually slip unimpeded into her tent to see musical acts like Randy Travis in the dim air-conditioned space, where there were seats for the elderly and infirm. The hold-up at the tent's entrance wasn't to enter -- it was the thousands of people waiting to sign in and be given tickets that would allow them to cast a vote for Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

Ultimately, more than 6,000 of the $30 tickets to vote were distributed by her campaign, according to a source inside her tent, giving her the edge and making her the first woman to ever win the Ames Straw Poll after 4,823 of them cast ballots for her.

"Thank you everyone for being here," Bachmann said to cheers, emerging briefly from her campaign bus to shake hands and thank supporters after being declared the victor. "This is the very first step toward taking the White House in 2012 and sending the message that Barack Obama will be a one-term president." The one-term president line has become a signature in her stump speech, so much so that the coliseum audience chanted it along with her when she used it in while addressing them earlier in the day.

"We love you. Thank you so much. It's your victory," she told supporters.

It's not totally clear what happened to the rest of the distributed Bachmann tickets, some 1,200 of which did not turn into votes. What was clear was that not everyone in Bachmann's long lines was an eligible voter -- there were a slew of people from Minnesota still waiting for beef sundaes toward the end of the balloting period, for example. Among them was Pat Konkleir, 58, who came down from Blaine, Minn., in Bachmann's district to help organize straw poll activities. "We brought down a bus of 40 or 50 or so," she said.

Even so, with 16,892 ballots cast, it was highest number of votes at a straw poll since 1999.

Bachmann's Iowa faith-based coalitions organizer credited her win to the churches. "I've not ever seen anything like this," he said, strolling the floor in the press center after it was clear she'd won but before the results were announced -- and before realizing he wasn't supposed to give out his name. They were "extraordinary numbers."

"At the end of the day, the story is going to be the faith-based turnout," he said. That, and Ed Rollins, Bachmann's top political adviser, who was "really an inspiration. He told us how to do it."

But in talking to volunteers wearing orange Michele Bachmann T-shirts or wilting in line for her tent, Bachmann's social conservatism stood out as only one aspect of what appeared to be a coalition that's gathered around her.

"She's a constitutionalist," observed volunteer Paul Dayton of Boone. "She's fiscally conservative. She votes the way she says she will."

"She's firm, she's solid. I love her enthusiasm. I love everything she is," effused Shirley Ripley, 70, of Charles City, a self-described "tea party person." Pressed for specifics, she pointed to "regulations up the ying yang," "how they're trying to tell us how we can't have salt, can't have potato chips, can't have pop" and what is being taught to children.

In addition to religious conservatives, fiscal conservatives and constitutionalists (which usually means people with a libertarian stance toward federal government regulations), Bachmann appeals to conservative women. Even if they are so conservative they can't always vote for her.

Dea Davenport, 73, of Diagonal, Iowa, said she was a Bachmann supporter but hadn't cast her straw poll vote for her. "If she were a man I would have voted for her," Davenport said. "I feel like a man ought to be running the country, but she'd be my second choice."

"I think she's a good candidate, though, I really do," she sighed. "I just wish she were a man."

A STALLED PAUL

Texas Rep. Ron Paul is waging his third presidential bid and has said he won't run for the House again so he can focus all his energies on it. The fact that he won as many votes as he did, 4,671, and that Bachmann could put together an operation that bested his years-long effort in just 48 days -- a number she mentioned repeatedly during her speech in the coliseum Saturday afternoon -- suggests both how narrow and deep his base of support is.

Paul has tended to win straw polls wherever he goes, but the critical difference between the Ames Straw Poll and the ones at the Conservative Political Action Conference and the Republican Leadership Conference earlier this year -- both of which he won -- is that this poll was limited to people from a circumscribed geographic area.

It's easy for Paul to gather his impassioned supporters from around the country at a conference; it's harder for him to muster support within a single locale. That was the case for him last cycle as well, when he was able to build enormous presence at GOP and conservative events throughout Iowa by drawing supporters from around the region but came in fifth in the straw poll.

This time, Paul did a better job turning out his local backers, but there was little to suggest he'd significantly broadened his appeal. His Hawkeye-State backers in Ames by and large seemed to have been with him for the long haul, rather than new supporters, raising questions about how much more backing he can gain before the caucuses. Sure, he had a dunk-tank near his tents for little kids, to compete with Bachmann's entertainingly tiny yellow blimp, which floated above her campaign bus all day to signal where her tent was, but the people who turned out for him weren't there for that or the hot dogs or his giant inflatable "Sliding Dollar" slide game.

Ray Bures, 69, of Ely, Iowa, had been a supporter of Paul's "going all the way back probably 20 years, when I first became aware of him." Tony Stuntz, 30, of Council Bluffs, had been backing him "since 2007" and says he'd "met a couple of guys who voted for him in '88." Mark Hansen, 30 and also of Council Bluffs, described himself as "a strong supporter for the last four years."

Paul's consistency has kept these voters and others like them with him, even as new candidates have entered the field. "He's always been doing the same thing," said Bill Hofmeister, 39, of Cedar Rapids, a Paul supporter since 2009. "He's not a flip-flopper."

SOFT PAWLENTY SUPPORT

Tim Pawlenty's machine seemed well-organized, but interviews with individuals in and around his tent revealed less than firm support for him -- a level of support that was ultimately reflected in Pawlenty's third-place finish with just 2,293 of the votes cast.

"Why are you supporting Tim Pawlenty?" I asked Becky Reif of Cedar Rapids, who was one of many people wearing a green Pawlenty 2012 T-shirt.

"I don't have a candidate," she replied. "I'm still open to other people."

"But you voted for him today?" I followed up.

"I did vote for him today," she said. "He sounds like a good man. He sounds like he's got the same Christian values."

She'd come in with a group from the River of Life Church that was all voting Pawlenty, she explained. She was not in Ames out of any kind of personal passion for him.

Over in the food tent, Lavada Dennis, 74 and from Cedar Falls, was similarly noncommittal. "I'm a Pawlenty supporter. But it's a long way from the election," she said while eating a sandwich from Famous Dave's BBQ. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who announced his presidential campaign today at an event in South Carolina, was also of interest to her.

"I think Rick Perry has a lot of experience running the state of Texas," she observed. That made his argument much like Pawlenty's -- the experience argument, "versus, you know, Bachmann," she said.

Pawlenty, perhaps sensing his weak hold on those wearing his T-shirts, warned them from the stage midday: "I hope you have all voted. If not I'm gonna come over and give you the what for."

A SANTORUM BUMP

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"This is the little engine that could campaign," Santorum described his candidacy in remarks in the coliseum.

Wooed with hot dogs and peach preserves made from peach trees on Santorum property -- quite excellent by the way -- a surprising number of people appeared to have turned out for him. But he still came in fourth with 1,657 votes, a finish that was clearly disappointing to him. Ebullient and cautiously optimistic at midday, he had a deflated look when he came back to speak to the press long after results were announced and staff from Iowa State University was trying to clear press out so the space could be turned over to NBC for a taping of "Meet the Press."

The Santorum effort would be "the fine wine candidacy," he said, committing to staying in the race. "We will age very, very well."

***

Below are the rest of the official results:

OFFICIAL RESULTS

2011 Straw Poll Full Results (Votes, %)
1. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (4823, 28.55%)
2. Congressman Ron Paul (4671, 27.65%)
3. Former governor Tim Pawlenty (2293, 13.57%)
4. Former senator Rick Santorum (1657, 9.81%)
5. Herman Cain (1456, 8.62%)
6. Gov. Rick Perry (718, 3.62%) write-in
7. Former governor Mitt Romney (567, 3.36%)
8. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (385, 2.28%)
9. Former governor Jon Huntsman (69, 0.41%)
10. Congressman Thad McCotter (35, 0.21%)
Scattering (162, 0.96 %) Includes all those receiving votes at less than one-percent that were not on the ballot.

Image credits: Bachmann (REUTERS/Daniel Acker); Santorum (Garance Franke-Ruta)

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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