What a night for political junkies and enthusiasts! The first Republican contest of the season in Iowa – an event many had written off as insignificant – turned out to be a photo-finish thriller, a fight decided by the narrowest margin in the history of the Iowa caucuses.
Just eight measly votes separated the top-two finishers, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. The final results were:
#1) Romney, 24.55% (30,015 votes)
#2) Santorum, 24.54% (30,007 votes)
#3) Ron Paul, 21.45% (26,219 votes)
#4) Newt Gingrich, 13.29% (16,251 votes)
#5) Rick Perry, 10.3% (12,604 votes)
#6) Michele Bachmann, 4.97% (6,073 votes)
#7) Jon Huntsman, 0.6% (745 votes)
In the lead-up to last night's caucuses, contender Jon Huntsman famously quipped, "They pick corn in Iowa and pick presidents here in New Hampshire." But, last night was no throw-away vote. A total of 122,255 registered Republicans came out to vote this year, breaking the previous record for GOP caucus participants (119,000) in 2008. On a night political pundits will be talking about all week, here are some of my important takeaways:
The Anyone-But-Romney campaign. In a race that stretched until 2:30 am EST, Mitt Romney edged Rick Santorum by a mere eight votes, a margin that amounts to a dead tie. Romney could not surpass his 2008 Iowa vote total. That the GOP's front-runner could not defeat a candidate who was virtually unknown until the week leading up to the contest is further evidence that voters believe Romney should lead the party, but not with any kind of conviction. First it was Bachmann, then Perry, the Cain, Gingrich, Ron Paul, and now Santorum. Romney has an uphill battle ahead if he is to convince voters that he is the right choice to defeat President Barack Obama in 2012.
Huge victory for social conservatives, and those who wear sweater vests. In the leadup to the Caucus, expectations for Santorum were at zero, so he had nowhere to go but up. But his success was most certainly the story of the night. Try Googling Santorum and see what pops up as the first result. That a candidate who cannot even manage his own online brand managed to fight to a tie with the GOP's fundraising leader is proof that old fashioned, on-the-ground campaigning still works (Santorum reportedly stumped in all of Iowa's 99 districts, whereas Romney's visits were rare). But it is also a sign that social conservatism remains an X factor this election. Santorum is not just a media creation. He's a staunch social conservative on gay rights, abortion, and immigration issues, and social conservatives are distrustful of Romney and are looking for an alternative. After a disappointing finish, Rick Perry told his supporters he is planning to "reassess" whether he has a path forward. If he backs out of the race, Santorum may receive a boost Tea Party and social conservative support in South Carolina.
Ron Paul factor. After a third-place finish, the Texas libertarian told his supporters, "We are going to keep scoring just as we have tonight. We will go on, we will raise the money." Although he had been projected to finish in second, Paul did surprisingly well and poses a dilemna for the other candidates moving forward. If Paul runs as an independent, he will become the Ralph Nader of 2000, threatening to steal votes away from Romney. Romney must embrace Ron Paul and his supporters if he is to prevent them from staying home in November or casting their ballot for Obama. Paul's libertarian supporters could be the important swing votes that help to decide the general election.
Gingrich is the Biggest Loser. Despite all the attention he received over the course of the past month, Gingrich finished in a disappointing fourth place. That represents a significant decline for the candidate that was projected as the Iowa victor just two weeks ago. In his heated election night speech, Gingrich made it clear he is planning on staying in the race. Gingrich had harsh words for Romney, and Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond told the Union-Leader's John DiStaso: "We will fight Romney on the airwaves, on the beaces, on Interstate 93, on WMUR and in every county." But those seem like the words of a demoralized and desperate campaign on its last limb.
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