UPDATE at 2:37am Eastern: The Iowa State Party GOP has declared a final tally, and says Mitt Romney won by a mere eight votes.
The first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses closed with confusion and tension, as Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum finished in an effective dead heat. Both candidates each held just under 25 percent of the total count, and were only separated by a handful of votes.
Right at the start of Mitt Romney’s address to his supporters at the night’s end, the former Massachusetts governor admitted that even with 99 percent of the vote in “we do not know what the final vote tally is going to be.” His wife did introduce him as “the next President of the United States,” however, he notably failed to declare himself Iowa’s winner.
Rick Santorum also pulled back from boldly declaring total victory. However, as he greeted his supporters he did declare “game on!” and boast of how much time he had also spent in the next key state: New Hampshire.
It was a surprising turn of events for both candidates. With a strong following in New Hampshire, Romney hesitated at first to launch a full-scale effort to win Iowa. After aggressively contesting the state in the 2008 campaign only to see his hopes dashed as evangelical favorite Mike Huckabee ran away with the race, he didn’t want to make the same fatal mistake in 2012. As late as August, Romney opted not to participate in the Ames Straw Poll, an event generally regarded as a critical show of dedication to competing in the state.
But as rivals like Rick Perry and later Newt Gingrich threatened to turn a caucus win into a springboard from which to launch a lengthy nomination battle, Romney made a late push to place in the state, boosting expectations in the process. His numbers, while never spectacular, nonetheless moved into the top tier as he combined a general election focused stump speech aimed primarily at President Obama with a crushing wave of independent Super PAC ads aimed at his rivals, especially Gingrich.
Santorum proved a surprising dark horse. Despite holding an unparalleled number of events in the state, Santorum’s campaign showed little sign of life until the final days before the caucuses, when his patient groundwork finally translated to a surge in the polls. Largely ignored by the rest of the field before, rivals suddenly began to attack — Rick Perry produced tough negative ads and Romney began labeling him a career politician — but it was mostly too late to slow his momentum. Santorum’s staff told CNN they spent only $120,000 on direct mail and advertising in Iowa versus over $4.5 million by outside groups backing Romney alone.
While the economy dominates the national political conversation, Santorum ran largely on a combination of intense social conservatism — most notably his opposition to gay rights, abortion, and even contraception — and a hawkish neoconservative foreign policy, including an open threat to go to war with Iran if they refuse to abandon their nuclear program. It was a strategy that made sense for Iowa, whose GOP skews more towards the Christian right than other primary states, but it may hard to duplicate in less socially conservative states like New Hampshire and Florida.
Ron Paul’s third place finish was a disappointment after several weeks of polling showing him a serious threat to win the caucuses outright. His staunch libertarianism and anti-interventionist foreign policy distinguished him from the GOP field attracted a fanatically loyal core of followers whose enthusiasm over from his 2008 run undiminished. While his radical small government ideology became highly influential in the burgeoning Tea Party movement, the GOP establishment has remained overwhelmingly hostile to his candidacy over his call for a massive reduction in the United State’s military’s funding and international role, his ties to the racist fringe, and his penchant for bizarre conspiracy theories.
For Gingrich, who only weeks earlier was leading not only in Iowa but in states all over the country before being picked apart by attack ads from his rivals and independent groups, his weak fourth place finish was especially bitter. In an emotional speech to supporters as the final results trickled in, he complained of an “avalanche of negative ads” and “drowning in negativity.”
He noted with a snarl that Santorum “waged a great positive campaign.”
Michele Bachmann, who staked her campaign almost entirely on Iowa, will face tremendous pressure to drop out after finishing in 6th place. Perry’s campaign had apparently been hoping to make a stand in South Carolina, but his weak 5th place position and a brewing civil war among his top staff point towards an ugly end to the campaign. On late Tuesday night he announced he would return to Texas to “assess” whether to stay in the race.
Much like the broader GOP electorate, Iowa voters had difficulty settling on any one candidate for long. Virtually every hopeful to compete in the caucuses led the polls at one point, often flaming out as quickly as they rose. Michele Bachmann, playing up her childhood roots in the state, won a hard earned victory at the Ames Straw Poll in August only to spectacularly collapse as Rick Perry stole her thunder and her myriad gaffes finally caught up with her. Perry faded away in turn and resorted to desperate measures in the race’s final weeks, including a TV spot attacking gays and President Obama’s “war on religion” that his own pollster dismissed as “nuts.” By the time Iowans caucused on Tuesday, his staff was already bickering in the press over who to blame for their dire straits.
At times, candidates appeared poised to potentially win the state despite having virtually no organization in the state, soaring on the strength of debates and national coverage. Herman Cain, who took the frontrunner mantle from Perry, led the state before being forced out of the race by his various personal dramas even as he devoted minimal time and resources to campaigning there. Newt Gingrich, who also led many polls for a stretch in December, only opened up a campaign office at the very end of November.
The decreased focus on campaigning left some Republicans in Iowa uneasy. The whole selling point of Iowa is that candidates need to be there in person, to spend time on the ground kissing babies and food on sticks. There’s a real existential crisis over what the future of the caucuses will be, said Joseph Heuertz, who ran the caucus in Johnston, Iowa just outside Des Moines. Romney swept the balloting in Johnston, but the 742 who turned out was less than the 1000 or so organizers had planned for. Still it was about a 100 more than turned out in 2008.
Heuertz reflected on the 2012 caucus cycle, which was much different than caucuses in the past.
“I think the caucus in many ways is shifting in terms of its national importance,” Heuertz told TPM. “With the caucuses now, you’ve got social media, new media, $10 million in ad buys just in the matter of a week or two. It shows that you can campaign without actually being in the state.”
The many nationally televised debates helped push Iowa visits off candidate radars, Heuertz said. He said the caucuses will survive until the next cycle, but perhaps not exactly with the prominence they’ve had in the past.
In the end, however, two of the top three finishers did hew closer to the traditional campaign. Santorum spent far more time in the state than any other candidate, putting his faith in old-fashioned baby-kissing retail politics that paid off only at the very last minute. Paul built a steady campaign infrastructure over months, putting his dedicated and disproportionately young supporters to work throughout the state and dispatching surrogates to aggressively sell religious leaders on his opposition to gay marriage and abortion. And Romney — and the independent Super PAC supporting him — poured millions into TV ads in the race’s final weeks.
The race now moves to New Hampshire, where Romney’s consistent lead has turned the state into a crucial firewall for his campaign. South Carolina, where Romney lost in 2008, will be the tougher fight and the better opportunity for his rivals to slow his campaign. But, just as he did in Iowa, Romney will almost certainly enjoy a dominant lead in campaign funds from hereon in, making it a tough slog for candidates looking to carry their Iowa momentum forward.