Romney Wins by 8 Votes. Who Really Won (and lost) in Iowa?

Iowa Winners and Losers

Mitt Romney, 30,015. Rick Santorum, 30,007.

The official winner of the Iowa Caucus was Mitt Romney, barely edging out Rick Santorum by a microscopic 8 votes. Those results don’t really matter. At the end of the day, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, and Newt Gingrich made gains in the Iowa primary while Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry lost ground.

“But, Romney was at the top and Newt finished a dismal 4th. How could Gingrich be considered a winner?”

We’ll get to that shortly. First, let’s look at the clear winners and losers:

Winner – Rick Santorum

He was a footnote in the GOP picture just a couple of weeks ago but surged at the right time. Now, Santorum must face life as a frontrunner, something that nobody other than Romney has been able to weather. Every other candidate other than Huntsman (who will no longer be mentioned in the conversation) spent time over the last few months as the frontrunner and every other frontrunner other than Romney has been bashed down the pole.

Santorum was the right guy in the right place at the right time. Will it continue on to South Carolina and Florida? We’ll soon find out.

Winner – Ron Paul

Whether the “experts” think he has a shot or not is irrelevant. His supporters are more passionate than any other candidates’ and are the least likely to fade despite criticism from across the spectrum. Placing third in Iowa may have been a disappointment to some, but it’s a clear statement that the Republican establishment has a long way to go before they can truly appeal completely to the masses. Independents came out in force in support of Paul.

The same question that faces Santorum faces Paul. Can he sustain? He has the strongest floor and the lowest ceiling; getting new supporters will be a challenge if he sticks to his guns (which he will) on foreign policy and other issues. With the economy as his strongest selling point, he could still continue to surprise the establishment and hang around just long enough to be a disruption. Who knows? In this crazy race, even the “insane uncle” (as Fox News likes to label him) in the family has a chance. If his message continues to ring true about the economy, something that seemed impossible a couple of weeks ago could become a reality.

Loser – Rick Perry

He outspent everyone in Iowa and still only placed 5th. It’s time for Perry to consider whether he really wants to do more harm to his party or if he should throw his support to Santorum or Gingrich. He won’t be throwing it at Paul or Romney any time soon.

Either way, he’s done. Anything short of an all-out win in South Carolina will likely see him bowing out before Florida.

Loser – Michele Bachmann

She doesn’t have the money to sustain a campaign and really needed a 4th or higher finish to have a chance of raising more. With that option off the table, it’s time for he to go back to Congress.

Winner – Newt Gingrich

Despite crumbling in the last 3 weeks from a certain top-tier finish in Iowa to a dismal 4th, Gingrich was able to score some anti-Romney points with his airtime during election coverage. He is also a possible choice for Perry and Bachmann supporters who must now throw their support in another direction.

Over the next few days, we will hear about how he is in the same position that John McCain was in after Iowa. We will hear about how Reagan was behind at this point in the race in 1980. We will hear about how the tightening field of candidates will favor Gingrich. Whether it’s true or not, we’ll find out, but he managed to score more points than his 4th place finish really shows.

Can he win? Probably not. Can he take Romney down with him? That seems to be the plan.

Loser – Mitt Romney

With fewer votes than he received in 2008, Mitt Romney might be the winner, but this was and always has been his race to lose. He will win handily in New Hampshire, but failing to decisively defeat the pack will hurt him going into South Carolina and Florida. He will be the target just as much as Rick Santorum, perhaps more so, and Republicans who are looking for someone other than Romney will unite behind Santorum, Paul, or Gingrich, whichever can have the best showing later this month.

Is Romney still the likely GOP candidate? Yes. Still, he will face a longer fight than he can afford thanks to this miniscule win. On the other side, Barack Obama’s camp can only hope that the other Republican candidates tear Romney down as much as possible, softening him up before the real showdown in November.

Mitt Romney is the weakest frontrunner either party has seen since Michael Dukakis.

Responses from the Candidates

Romney, Santorum, Paul, and Gingrich all posted on Twitter after midnight in Iowa. President Obama did as well. The other three candidates haven’t posted since the results started coming in. Here’s what they had to say:

Romney Twitter Iowa

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Santorum Twitter Iowa

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Paul Twitter Iowa

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Gingrich Twitter Iowa

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Obama Twitter Iowa

Before the Candidates Say It Tomorrow, We’ll Say It Now: Iowa is Insignificant

Mike Huckabee

Do you recognize that face? If you don’t watch Fox News, you may not recall the sideways, dimpled grin of one-time Republican front-runner Mike Huckabee. In 2008, he was on a good path to the Republican nomination, handily beating everyone with over 40% of the Iowa GOP votes.

John McCain, the eventual nominee that year, came in a distant 4th.

Iowa sets the stage and can act as a wake-up call to the bottom of the barrel, but winning is relative in Iowa. One could make a case that finishing in the top 5 is enough to keep the campaign valid. Currently, the top Iowa race shakes out like this according to the latest USA Today poll:

Iowa Poll

If it plays out like the poll shows, that leaves Bachmann and Huntsman on the outside looking in.

Newt Gingrich still leads national polls and could start pulling states after Romney wins Iowa and New Hampshire, but his campaign needs a jolt of good news. The surge of Rick Santorum and the persistence of Ron Paul’s base of supporters are more trouble for Gingrich than Romney, while Perry’s continuation and deep pockets will lend strength to Romney if and when he bows out.

Iowa is always the center of attention this time of year, but history shows that it’s far from the key indicator of a nominee’s health. Then again, Barack Obama made a bold statement by defeating Hillary Clinton and John Edwards by double digits in Iowa. Maybe there’s more to it than we want to admit.

Either way, one person will be standing there at the end of the night talking about Iowa being the first step towards the nomination while 4 or 5 others will be pointing to the Iowa results of 2008 and calling for a McCain-esque statement to bring them home to the nomination.