Ron Paul’s second place finish at Ames was in many ways the most notable result from the straw poll. There had been expectations that Rep. Paul would do well, and perhaps even win, but finishing within 200 votes of the candidate currently dominating the field in Iowa is still a very good result. Compared with four years ago, both Bachmann and Paul received more votes  than Romney managed to get with his much more expensive straw poll effort. According to Rasmussen’s most recent Iowa poll , the top three in Iowa right now are Bachmann, Romney, and Paul, and both Bachmann and Paul are likely to receive a boost from coverage of their success at Ames. Much could change over the next five months, but Paul is showing some significant improvement in Iowa compared to the last race, and his campaign has typically excelled in caucus formats with their relatively smaller numbers of voters. Paul received just under 10% in 2008 in Iowa, and he is already polling ahead of that. It is conceivable that he could end up in the top three in the caucuses. If that were to happen, it would propel Paul into the top tier of candidates, and it would make it increasingly difficult to dismiss the part of the party he represents as unimportant.
Of course, Rick Perry will be a competitive candidate right away, and he could quickly win over Pawlenty’s supporters and poach many of Bachmann’s, but I have to wonder if he isn’t already being overrated. Despite his lack of organization and his narrow fundraising base , Perry’s candidacy is being taken seriously because of two things: his poll numbers, and because his bid seems credible “on paper.” Pawlenty’s campaign has reminded us how unimportant qualifications on paper can be. When the first big Perry story after his announcement is that Perry has a “crony capitalism problem”  relating to questionable state funding of firms connected to Perry donors, Perry’s campaign may not take off as quickly as everyone seems to assume it will.
A lot of the hype surrounding Perry is based in a lack of scrutiny of his record and dissatisfaction with the existing field of candidates. The hints of corruption and cronyism in this story are bad enough on their own, but in connection with other episodes it suggests that there may be a pattern of making questionable decisions that happen to serve the interests of his donors and companies with which he is too cozy. This was an important part of the controversy over Perry’s vaccination order four years ago: the vaccine in question was made by Merck, and Perry had several personal connections to the company  in addition to receiving donations from them. The vaccine controversy died away when the Texas legislature blocked  Perry’s decision, but it is something that will win him no applause from social conservatives and activists disgusted by collusion between government and corporations.
Bachmann has to be considered the candidate to beat in Iowa. It was clear from early on  that she had almost everything she needed to repeat Huckabee’s success in the caucuses, but what has distinguished her campaign so far is that she has been able to avoid being reduced to a factional candidate as Huckabee was. Bachmann is an evangelical and a social conservative, but she has managed not to be defined simply as “the evangelical candidate.” It remains to be seen if she can survive her habit of making false and misleading statements.
Following his weak third-place finish yesterday and his announcement today that he was abandoning the presidential race, it would be fitting to call Tim Pawlenty the pro-withdrawal candidate.