By Todd Dorman/The Gazette
An Iowa presidential caucus campaign that defied prediction again and again, month after month, produced a result Tuesday night that confounded crystal-clear analysis.
The fashionably late front-runner and the last-minute sprinter from the right rode Iowa’s crazy caucus rollercoaster to a tight finish. The unconventional insurgent and his motivated supporters finished strong but fell short.
Three tickets out of Iowa, but none in first class.
Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul crossed the finish line in a cloud of dust. Fitting for a campaign that’s been long cast in an indecisive haze or meteoric rises and fast falls.
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, went into Tuesday with hopes of winning the state, despite playing some serious hard to get with Iowa Republicans for much of 2011. In the end, he failed to get about 75 percent of the folks who showed up at their precinct meetings. Not exactly a result that screams “inevitable nominee.”
Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, did exactly the opposite, holding 381 town hall meetings in the state while visiting all 99 counties. His long-shot run surged in the final days as many once-divided evangelical voters jumped on his bandwagon at long last. How far it rolls from here is uncertain, but it gained speed Tuesday.
Paul, a U.S. representative from Texas, and his curious coalition of deficit hawks, young voters, new caucus-goers, moderates, independents and establishment-wary Republicans, according to entrance polls, tried to deliver a solid jolt to the political status quo. A third-place finish may have been only a glancing blow.
Along with the candidates, the future of Iowa’s leadoff role in the presidential process was in the spotlight. Maybe a Romney win would show a long slog through cafes and Pizza Ranches is no longer relevant in an age of Super PACs and big debates. A Santorum win would confirm the need for face time and organization. Paul would break the mold by encouraging independents and even Democrats to show up for a GOP caucus. Also, a hazy verdict.
Forget the process and all the caucus-bashing. Iowa’s historically close result really shows that none of these candidates was able to command enough support among caucus-goers to break out and grab a convincing win.
That reality might fall hardest on Romney, who is supposed to be the guy to beat. He now moves on to New Hampshire and beyond still dogged by his inability to seal the deal. Santorum, at least, can claim momentum.
Iowa is about winnowing the field, and winnowing was done. It’s tough to imagine how Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry move forward after betting all their chips on Iowa’s confounding vote.