Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Romney Wins Iowa Caucus, in Virtual Tie with Santorum

Mitt Romney won the Iowa Caucus on Tuesday, beating out Rick Santorum by a ludicrously narrow margin of 8 votes. Aside from Jon Huntsman, Santorum was the only candidate who never finished first in an Iowa poll. His late rise came at the last possible moment to give him a win--almost. At the final tally, Romney won 30,015 votes to Santorum's 30,007. The following are the vote percentages for each candidate:

Iowa Caucus Results
Romney -- 24.6%
Santorum -- 24.5%
Paul -- 21%
Gingrich -- 13%
Perry -- 10%
Bachmann -- 5%
Huntsman -- 1%

As Elephant Watcher predicted on Monday, Santorum's late momentum gave him the edge needed to outperform his polling and (almost) take first. For the past few weeks, Santorum had the distinction of being one of only three candidates in the race whom Elephant Watcher gave a greater than zero percent chance of winning the nomination. On Tuesday, he demonstrated why. From the start of the race, Santorum was nowhere in the polls--even in Iowa--and was written off by nearly everyone. However, the destruction of one Tea Party candidate after another left Santorum the most natural candidate for the role.

As explained in Monday's preview of Iowa, both Santorum and Romney will claim victory. Romney's campaign will say that he achieved a win in a fundamentally "anti-Romney" state and predict a win for Romney in New Hampshire. Santorum's near-tie will enable him to finally raise his profile elsewhere. Though he's hardly set foot outside of Iowa, he will be able to make the case that all of the anti-Romney voters should rally behind him. Elephant Watcher expects Santorum's numbers to rise nationally and in all of the early states.

The other winner of the night was the state of Iowa, which avoided disaster by not giving Ron Paul (or Michele Bachmann) a win. Back in June, we observed that the history of the Iowa Caucus shows the state is unfairly maligned as a breeding ground for "wildcard" candidates, and that the state's voters actually place a premium on traditional, electable candidates. Tonight's result, particularly with Romney getting first place, is another demonstration of that. Now perhaps the pundits will spare a few kind words about the sober-minded, moderate Iowa voters. However, the anti-Iowa sentiment will return in election cycles to come.

The big loser of the night is Newt Gingrich, who failed to outperform his declining poll numbers. Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann should also be disappointed, as they failed to catch up to Gingrich. New Hampshire's primary will take place next week, and Romney's remaining rivals can spend that time attacking Romney if they like, but afterward they will all need to battle Santorum in South Carolina for the title of chief Anti-Romney.

How did we get here, with Santorum coming from behind to (almost) squeak out a win? It was the first step of Santorum's "winning scenario," charted by Elephant Watcher, along with the rest of the candidates' winning scenarios, back in April:

Scenario: "The 7-10 Split"
Santorum raises his profile among social conservatives in Iowa by focusing on a controversial issue where few dare to tread. Few see Santorum as a threat. As time passes, it becomes increasingly clear that Iowa is hopelessly split among several different candidates. Despite a low vote total in absolute terms, Santorum pulls off an upset in Iowa. Somewhat befuddled, social conservatives and the Tea Party wing see little choice but to rally behind him after a "RINO" wins New Hampshire.

Now comes the real test for Santorum--whether the Tea Party is, in fact, willing to overlook the non-conservative aspects of Santorum's political past. If his conservative credentials are too tarnished by attacks against him, then Romney's electability (along with campaign infrastructure, establishment support, etc.) will easily trump him. In the meantime, Santorum will need to explain to conservative voters who have never heard of him why they should abandon the other Anti-Romneys and support him.