With 99 percent of precincts reporting, it appears Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney are going to finish with 25 percent of the vote each, with the difference between the two candidates being less than 100 votes. Ron Paul appears poised to come in third with 21 percent of the vote, approximately 3,800 votes behind the two leaders.
So what are the take home messages from the caucus results?
First, Republicans did turn out to vote in record numbers. At this point, it appears well over 122,000 registered Republicans went to their precincts to caucus for a particular candidate. This sends a strong message to the party and political observers. Despite all the reported indecisiveness and malaise among Republican voters, the “party in the electorate” is clearly focused on the 2012 campaign.
Second, in spite of all the criticism leveled against Iowa for being “first-in-the-nation” and making “extreme candidates” seem viable, the results from Tuesday night’s caucus send two important signals.
One, retail politics, and perhaps endorsements, still matter. Rick Santorum, the “hardest working man” in the Iowa caucus this season, was able to stage a dramatic turnaround and may come out on top, or at least within 100 votes of first place.
Two, electability is still important to Iowa Republicans. Coming into tonight, Republican voters seemed to be struggling with choosing a candidate based on three key factors: electability, ability to relate to Iowans, and consistency. Ron Paul captured the latter two traits, but Romney was always perceived as dominating in electability. Romney’s finish suggests voters were willing to take a long-term view of the campaign and compromise on the other two.
On the other hand, the caucus did little to validate the Ames Straw Poll. Since the “cavalcade of stars” in 1987, at least two of the top three in the Straw Poll have finished in the top three on caucus night. Michele Bachmann not only becomes the first straw poll winner to finish outside the top three, but only Ron Paul, who finished second at the straw poll, finished in the top three on Tuesday night.
Looking at the individual campaigns, Mitt Romney picked up Polk County but also repeated victories from 2008 by winning Linn, Scott, Dubuque, Pottawattamie, and Johnson counties. For Ron Paul, the latter had to be particularly devastating given his appeal to young Republicans. In fact, of the three regents university counties, Paul lost two in Johnson and Story and won the third (Black Hawk) by a mere 35 votes.
While Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann were probably the biggest losers of the night, Ron Paul’s third place finish has to be disappointing. Paul finished second behind Bachmann in the Ames Straw Poll by only 152 votes and received very little attention. The only way his campaign was going to get a boost was to pull off a “big win” in Iowa. A third place finish, 4 percentage points and 3,800 votes behind the leaders, will not generate the kind of media buzz his campaign needed.
In the end, Iowa served its purpose. Most likely the field will be winnowed by two candidates (Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann), and Iowans propelled a campaign that would have struggled in other states where campaigning is more expensive.
Going forward, Mitt Romney has a fight ahead. It is now clear that the gloves are off for Gingrich. While it is unlikely he will overtake Romney in New Hampshire, Gingrich needs to be aggressive and make a good showing to build momentum for the next two states, South Carolina and Florida, where he still leads by double digits in the polls.
Looking at the Santorum campaign, he obviously needs and will get some bump from prospective campaign donors as they now view his campaign as more viable. But Santorum needs to keep momentum. Thus, it would not be surprising to see Santorum virtually skip New Hampshire to focus solely on South Carolina, where he has campaigned and where the electorate is more closely akin to Iowa Republicans and, more importantly, more receptive to his message.
As always, the Iowa caucuses make for interesting storylines and interesting debate. Tuesday’s results will be historic for the closeness of the top two candidates in terms of vote share, but also for the distance between those top two candidates in terms of their perceived electability.
Kudos to those who caucused on Tuesday and once again made Iowa worthy of all the national attention it has received the last few weeks and months. Every vote counts! Now, enjoy the silence of non-ringing telephones and the empty space in your mailboxes.