I spent most of last week in Iowa, following the Republican presidential hopefuls through state fair appearances, a national debate, and a long day in Ames as straw poll voters rendered their judgment on the GOP candidates. Even before I arrived in Ames, however, plenty of skeptical voices asked whether the entire exercise was overblown and overhyped, nothing more than a meaningless Republican fundraiser dressed up as a critical campaign event. Rick Perry's decision to officially enter the race from South Carolina on the day of the straw poll made that question even more trenchant.

Did Republicans make too much of the Ames poll?  If they did, they had plenty of company. National news organizations sent their political A-teams to Iowa. ABC and NBC had their White House correspondents on the ground in Ames for the three days of the debate and the straw poll, Jake Tapper and Chuck Todd respectively. Fox broadcast its nightly news from the stage built into the Hilton Coliseum's makeshift media room on the floor of the arena, and broadcast Thursday's debate live from the Stephens Auditorium next door. National-reach newspapers such as The Washington Post and USA Today had one or more of their political correspondents on hand for all of the events.

One Republican in particular turned Ames into a significant event. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty had failed to catch fire in early polling, and his campaign needed a big, game-changing response in Iowa to convince financial backers to stick with them. Pawlenty spent a great deal of time — and apparently almost all of his remaining money — to rally support in Ames. Nonetheless, Pawlenty failed to score well, finishing a distant third in the straw poll, with less than half of the votes of the second-place finisher (Ron Paul) and only 600 votes more than Rick Santorum, who finished fourth. Pawlenty promptly withdrew, as Perry's entry and his own disappointing performance all but guaranteed that donors would take a pass on his campaign.

We know significantly more about the candidates after this long dance with Iowa voters...

Clearly, then, the Iowa events were not meaningless, even if just in the specific outcome for Pawlenty. But the poll also served as a test of organizational strength for the campaigns — at least those who competed. It forced the GOP hopefuls to focus on retail politicking, the kind that rewards candidates when the real caucuses come this winter, rather than on big fundraisers and media appearances. Don't discount the impact that had on the tone of the debate, either. Candidates conducting this kind of retail politicking had to draw explicit comparisons to their competition while trying to convince potential attendees to show up and support them. The debates would have become combative eventually as we got closer to 2012, but it doesn't surprise me at all that the first no-holds-barred imbroglio took place in Ames.
The results had their nuances as well. For instance, the Michele Bachmann campaign announced earlier in the day that it had given away 6,000 tickets to potential supporters, which at $30 a pop had a face-value of $180,000. Although Bachmann won the straw poll, she received 4,823 votes, which meant that Bachmann lost around 20% of the people she brought to the event. Paul, who finished just 150 votes behind Bachmann for second place, held onto nearly all of the votes he brought to the straw poll.

For those who argue that Perry's announcement from South Carolina during the voting alienated Iowa Republicans, the vote provided a significant and meaningful indicator as well. Perry was not listed on the ballot, but got 718 write-in votes out of 16,982 cast. That put Perry 151 votes ahead of frontrunner Mitt Romney, who had decided not to compete for votes in the straw poll but whose name was on the ballot. Romney had campaigned in Iowa during the week, speaking at the state fair as the other candidates did and traveling to meet voters, and still finished behind the only write-in to get 1 percent or more of the vote.

One could argue, of course, that Perry's unexpectedly strong write-in showing demonstrates the essential meaningless of the results. Perry did reasonably well mostly without lifting a finger, while Bachmann and Paul slugged it out for what likely will be a claim to third and fourth place behind Romney and Perry rather than first and second place in the overall field. Ranking isn't really the point, though. We know significantly more about the candidates after this long dance with Iowa voters, about their positions as well as their abilities and limitations. That will have a good deal of value for voters across the country as this process moves toward the Iowa caucuses next winter.