Mitt Romney came in first in the Mackinac Straw Poll this weekend, winning 39% support. He was followed by McCain with 27%, Paul and Giuliani at 11% (Paul scoring more votes to finish in third place), and Thompson with 7%.
This particular Straw Poll demanded the highest price for entry: $100 per head. It is reported that the Romney campaign offered to buy the tickets for any of their supporters who requested one. McCain's second is therefore even more surprising, since he didn't buy anyone's entry. Paul again finishes better in a straw poll than he fares in opinion surveys. His supporters appeared again in significant numbers, enough to gain notice from a number of observers.
The Mackinac event required participants to be registered Republicans, so McCain's performance was even more striking. He did win the 2000 Michigan Primary, but that event allowed crossover voting with independents and Democrats (whose nomination had already been decided that cycle) who had been assumed to provide much of McCain's winning support.
Romney did win the thing, of course, and subsidizing support was not prohibited, so his strategy of concentrating on the earliest contests seems still alive (he leads the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, and Michigan just moved their own primary to January in defiance of the dictates of both national parties). Giuliani and Thompson both appeared at the event, but it didn't seem to affect the outcome.
The bottom line: the event just reinforces the notion the race is still wide open. Giuliani leads nationally, but Thompson is close behind after his late formal entry (and leads by a fraction in South Carolina). McCain is also enjoying a strong rebound after his campaign hit bottom this summer, and might possibly attract some conservatives unimpressed with the performance of Thompson (or the others down the ranks, saving Paul, whose support seems especially nontransferable).
What does a tight nomination contest mean for the GOP when the Democrats seem all but settled upon Hillary Clinton? Well, it's a mixed bag. The longer the nomination remains unsettled, the less time for the eventual winner to mend all the fences, unite the party, and begin the general campaign. On the other hand, it will force more media coverage, especially once the Democratic race is settled. Much depends on the tone of the campaign. If the Republicans can focus on positive themes, reserving their criticisms for the Democratic candidate and Congress, the extended fight may actually strengthen their prospects next November. If it degenerates, as close primaries often do, into attacking each other, it would tend to leave the party divided and play right into Hillary Clinton's hands.