Ed: The fun of the Ames straw poll came to an end this afternoon as the ballot count shows that 16,892 votes were cast, and Michele Bachmann (4823) won a narrow victory over Ron Paul (4671) — less than 200 votes difference.  Tim Pawlenty finished in a distant third (2293), followed by Rick Santorum  and then Herman Cain.  Bachmann comes away with a win, but not by much — and since reports had her giving out 6,000 tickets to the event, it’s not exactly a big endorsement.

Rick Perry got 718 write-in votes without showing up at all.

Of course, the big question won’t be what this means, but if it means anything at all.  The consistent poll frontrunner, Mitt Romney, didn’t contest the straw poll, although he did show up for the debate and did some local campaigning this week.  Perry’s entry to the race means the arguable #2 candidate in the race didn’t compete, either.  Those two developments mean that the winner might be battling for third place everywhere else but Iowa, and maybe even here after a few weeks have passed.

That doesn’t make these results meaningless, however.  The candidates who did compete in the straw poll had an opportunity to put their organizations to the test.  The results will be used to argue for some weeding out of the field before the next major debate.  As we begin to progress closer to the real caucus in Iowa next January, the number of Republicans on stage at the debates should shrink so that we can get a better look at the most viable challengers.

Tina: It’s true that this straw poll probably means less than Bachmann would like us to believe. When we booked our tickets to be in Ames this weekend, I thought we’d surely be in the most newsworthy place in the nation. Little did we know then that Perry would pick the same day — but a different place — to announce his candidacy.

When we stepped onto the Iowa State Campus to pick up our credentials Wednesday, I tweeted that it felt like Game Day — and that was before the candidates constructed tents and fired up their grills. It really felt like a tailgate today. Given that, I understand better now why some folks don’t take the straw poll too seriously — buying votes and bribing supporters with pulled pork, pizza, hot dogs, beef sundaes and blizzards isn’t exactly equivalent to candidates espousing their most deeply held views in a readily digestible way. The speeches to a crowded arena consisted mostly of finely honed talking points aimed to draw applause. All in all, it’s a funny way to pick a president — this focus on retail politics.

But I’m not seeking to blame Ames for anything that’s “wrong” with the campaign process, nor am I saying (as Newt Gingrich tried so hard to say on the stage Wednesday) that how candidates run their campaigns tells us nothing about what kind of leaders they make. On the whole, this was a fun, fun weekend — and campaigns do tell us a significant amount about a candidate’s ability to construct a vision, assemble a team, organize, etc., etc. And given that the campaign process is what it is, the straw poll certainly matters in terms of building momentum. This year, turnout was especially high (second highest in the history of the poll, we’re hearing), so the winner of the straw poll can take from that an extra boost in confidence. But what matters most, of course, is how Bachmann moves forward from here.

Ed: Pawlenty won the bare-minimum third place here in Iowa, but he got less than half of the votes of the two ahead of him.  That is not going to be a ringing endorsement for his campaign to continue.  With Perry’s entry, his argument for supercompetent executive doesn’t differentiate him any longer, and going head-to-head with Bachmann didn’t help his numbers, either.  Rick Santorum will fade out soon, as he’s going to have difficulty raising money from here on out, as Pawlenty might, too.

It may be trite to say this, but you know who this near-tie helps?  Mitt Romney and Rick Perry.

Tina: Romney and Perry seem to know it, too. Perry boldly and transparently timed the start of his speech in New Hampshire to exactly coincide with the announcement of the Iowa straw poll results. Bachmann didn’t win by a wide enough margin to dominate headlines tonight or tomorrow — and Perry, who will be able to compete with her in the Tea Party space in a way Romney hasn’t, has already drawn media attention away from Iowa and toward South Carolina.

Romney, for his part, knows better than anyone else in the field just how little an Ames straw poll victory can mean. He poured enormous resources into (and won) the 2007 straw poll, but then still lost Iowa to second-place finisher Mike Huckabee. The congratulatory words Romney immediately tweeted out to Bachmann betray all the confidence of a steady frontrunner: “Congratulations to Michele Bachmann for winning the Iowa GOP’s straw poll. Look forward to crossing paths on the campaign trail.”

But it’s hard to think this benefits Romney and Perry equally. Romney’s clearly not worried about Bachmann, but he probably should start to give some thought to Perry, if he hasn’t already. Perry, after all, attracted more votes than Romney did — and Perry wasn’t even on the ballot.

Ed: Only Rick Santorum ventured into the spin room to give a reaction to the straw poll results.  Jake Tapper did an interview with Santorum which will probably have this in it, but I overheard Santorum tell Tapper, “I will be a factor in the caucus.”  Sounds like he’s not planning to get out — at least not now.

Also, it’s worth noting that the straw poll reported write-ins that got 1% or more of the total, roughly 169 votes.  Rick Perry was the only undeclared candidate to get enough to report.  There were 162 “scattered” votes reported.  That means that Sarah Palin, who showed up to the Iowa state fair yesterday, couldn’t have received any more than 162 write-ins, and that Perry managed to do all right despite the supposed insult he delivered to Iowans.