It's all about expectations.
In the Iowa Straw Poll in Ames on Saturday, the expectation was that the number of Iowans who got on a bus, or into their cars and drove to Ames to participate would be about the same number as four years ago. Some 13,000 Republican Hawkeyes voted in 2007.
Over 16,800 people showed up today (which was not expected) and 4,823 of them (28.6%) voted for Michelle Bachmann good for first place which was not a surprise.
Ron Paul came in second with 4,671 votes (27.6%) only 152 votes behind. That wasn't much of a surprise, either. The Straw Poll is made for someone like Paul whose support is a foot wide but a couple of miles deep. You find your people. You get them to Ames. You hand them a $30 ticket so they can get into the hall and vote.
A reporter had asked me during the day whether a third place finish would be good enough for Tim Pawlenty to continue. I said it would have be a close third. A distant third or worse would be lights out for the Pawlenty campaign.
A distant third is where Pawlenty ended up receiving votes from only 2,293 Iowans (13.6%). He didn't meet expectations and it will be difficult for him to continue. Given the size of his food tent, it would be interesting to find out how many BBQ meals the Pawlenty campaign served and compare that to how many votes he got.
Rick Santorum came in fourth with 1,657 votes (9.8%) which was a modest surprise, but no one believes he's going to be on the GOP ticket in November 2012 so it generated just about the same amount of buzz as the fourth place finisher in 2007 - Tom Tancredo - who got a higher 13.7 percent of the vote four years ago.
Herman Cain continued his slide back into political oblivion coming in fifth with 1,456 votes (8.6%).
Because expectations are everything ,the sixth place finisher (with only 718 votes) was Texas Governor Rick Perry was the second-biggest story behind Bachmann. Perry had entered the race with an announcement in South Carolina a few hours before the voting was over in Iowa. Perry's name wasn't on the printed ballot so it became big news that his supporters could get that many write-in votes for him.
Mitt Romney got 557 write-in votes which only raised some eyebrows because of Perry's total. There was a suggestion around the property that if Romney had wanted to, he could have turned on the phone call machine, turned out his supporters and come in first among the write-ins. But he didn't, so he didn't.
Newt Gingrich got 385 votes and Jon Huntsman got only 69. Neither result surprised anyone.
This Straw Poll was a fight among the GOP candidates who want to claim the mantle of the leader of the conservative wing. Romney is not interested in that title, Perry and Bachmann are. Pawlenty was. Santorum and Cain didn't matter before Saturday's and they matter less after it was over.
Bachmann's people deserve great credit. She does not have nearly the organization here in Iowa where campaigning in the local coffee shop is typically followed up by a county coordinator having a team of workers take over when the candidate leaves to get names, addresses, phone numbers and emails of everyone in the place.
Bachmann did it with advertising and a ton of what used to be called "free" media - press - but is now called "earned" media. This result will boost her Q-factor but there are two dark clouds on the horizon: Perry and Palin.
Rick Perry is now in the race. He is a very accomplished campaigner and is fully capable of whacking Bachmann around. Note the way he handled Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the primary campaign for Perry's re-election as Governor of Texas. He can bring a crowd to its feet as easily as Bachmann but has the story-line as a successful Governor of one of America's largest states. That is a better story than being one of 435 Members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The other cloud is named Sarah Palin. Palin made her promised appearance at the Iowa State Fair here on Friday and it was as if Pippa Middleton had wandered in for a fried-butter-on-a-stick.
Bachmann might be able to hang in with Perry; but it is doubtful that she would be able to withstand a joint attack from Perry and Palin.
So, where does this leave Mitt Romney? Until he's not the front-runner he still is. He didn't compete here which was a good call on his part. I expect his campaign is dusting off the binder with the game plan to run against Perry and Bachmann (and maybe Palin) between now and the next time we're all in Des Moines.
Then we can play the expectation game throughout the caucuses and primaries.