Sarah Posner is senior editor of Religion Dispatches, where she writes a blog about religion and politics.
Michele Bachmann has just won the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa, edging out Ron Paul by less than 200 votes. In all, 16,892 voters cast their ballot, with 4,823 going to Bachmann, 4,671 to Paul, and 2,293 to third-place finisher Tim Pawlenty. Rick Perry, who announced his candidacy today in South Carolina and was a write-in candidate here, received 718 votes, finishing sixth; Rick Santorum, who appeared to largely draw voters attracted by his hostility to gay marriage, finished fourth, just ahead of Herman Cain.
"Bachmann's faith-based organization was over the top," said a campaign staffer who said he was not authorized to speak for the campaign and so could not give his name (he donned a shirt embroidered with the phrase, "Jesus is Lord Over America"). He said that "members [of churches], pastors, an extraordinary turnout. At the end of the day, the story is going to be the faith-based turnout." The staffer, who said he'd worked on other presidential campaigns in Iowa, added, "I've never seen anything like it." He attributed her success to a "very effective grassroots operation," and that religious voters saw her as "genuine. She wasn't ashamed. She boldly shared everything."
Bachmann supporters I spoke with were attracted to her religious rhetoric but also saw her as a champion for their hardcore economic concerns, and many told me they admired her stance (due to a "titanium spine," her campaign parlance repeated by supporters) against raising the debt ceiling. Dan Kahlstorf, at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, with his wife, Ren, on Friday, called Bachmann the "American Margaret Thatcher."
Paul's strong second-place finish is a result of his enthusiastic base, which was out in large and characteristically noisy force. Doug Wead, the long-time Bush adviser and confidant who devised the faith outreach strategy for both Bushes, is now advising the Paul campaign. At Paul's tent here in Ames, he declared, "This is the best campaign I've ever been a part of," adding that Paul isn't "phony."
Looming over the straw poll was Perry's announcement. While many voters I talked to shrugged it off, David Fisher, co-chair of Paul's state campaign, said, "Iowa Republicans believe he deliberately tried to steal the limelight."
Perry's announcement speech was shown on televisions in the tent organized by 501(c)(4) group Strong America Now, which hosted it for the 527 group, Americans for Rick Perry. Strong America Now executive director Peter O'Rourke, who said there was no formal affiliation between his group and Americans for Rick Perry, said Perry introduced legislation in Texas based on the organization's "Six Lean Sigma" cost-reduction program, which passed in the last legislative session. (The other major GOP candidates signed the group's debt reduction pledge in advance of the straw poll).
Newt Gingrich called the SAN program the "biggest idea of how to run government in 130 years, since the creation of the civil service." Gingrich claimed the program, if implemented on the national level, would save $5 trillion in federal spending over ten years. It "transcends presidential politics," he said, and will "shrink power in Washington, and grow citizens to fill the vacuum." Or at least it will give Gingrich, who finished eighth with just 385 votes in the straw poll, something to do.
But for Iowa voters, it appears that Bachmann's Christian rhetoric was the primary motivator. In her speech inside the coliseum this afternoon, she said, "God has mightily put his hand, a blessing upon this nation. We can never think we did this ourselves. It was an Almighty God that gave it to us."