While Ron Paul's chances of winning may have disappeared.
In the end, the numbers didn't matter. Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum slugged it out precinct by precinct in the Iowa caucuses on Tuesday night and when the dust settled, Mitt Romney came away with a razor thin victory.
But the winner in Iowa was evident even before the caucuses began. Rick Santorum came from single digits less than 10 days ago to challenge Mitt Romney and Ron Paul for Iowa supremacy. The former Pennsylvania senator's performance -- fueled by a herculean work ethic that saw him visit every county in the state and hold hundreds of town hall meetings -- was confirmation of the efficacy of retail politics in an age that places a premium on money to buy advertising and organization.
Meanwhile, Ron Paul's strong third place finish was still a blow to his campaign as the Texas congressman failed in the "expectations game." He was expected to win or place second to Mitt Romney, but Santorum's surge in the final hours probably hurt his chances for him to realize that result.
The also-rans in the race -- Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Jon Huntsman -- can take little comfort from their weak showings. It is likely that one or two of those candidates will drop out -- perhaps as early as Wednesday.
Mitt Romney didn't hurt himself in Iowa but he didn't help himself either. Entrance polls taken as attendees were walking into the caucus sites gave him some heartening news, however. By far the most important issue among caucus goers was finding a candidate who could beat President Barack Obama. Nearly 1/3 of attendees said that electability was their primary concern and Romney won nearly half of those votes. Romney also scored well with those who believe the economy was most important to them. He now moves on to New Hampshire where he holds a commanding lead over Ron Paul 47-17, with Santorum at 10% according to a CNN "flash poll" taken on Tuesday night of New Hampshire residents.
Every four years we hear the same complaints about Iowa being "First in the Nation" to register an opinion on the presidential candidates for both parties. It's too white, or it's too rural, or Evangelical Christians are too plentiful. It doesn't matter. The state jealously guards its status as the initial test for the candidates and the Republican National Committee appears to be in no mood to change its privileged position.
That said, the caucuses can be seen as a rudimentary test of strength and popularity with GOP voters and as such, it begins the winnowing process that usually claims one or two candidates who decide not to move on to New Hampshire. The most likely casualty from Tuesday night's festivities could be Michele Bachmann who told pre-caucus audiences that she had already "bought our tickets to go to South Carolina" in order to compete in that state's primary on January 21. But a sixth place finish in Iowa and with little money and not much of an organization in the Palmetto State, it seems a quixotic quest for her to hope that lightening would strike and bring her victory there.
Rick Perry's weak 5th place finish has dealt a body blow to his campaign. But the candidate swears he will move on to South Carolina, skipping New Hampshire to concentrate on the far friendlier climes of the Palmetto State. But in his speech after the caucuses ended, Perry hinted that he may drop out after all. He is returning to Texas to "reassess" his campaign.
Newt Gingrich finished a distant 4th, but will soldier on, at least through the South Carolina primary and perhaps all the way to Florida which holds its contest on January 31. For the former speaker of the House, it's gotten personal. The barrage of negative ads from Romney independent groups tore him down and severely damaged his candidacy. Newt has already demonstrated that he is taking off the gloves and will go after Romney hard wherever they are competing. Whether that is a winning strategy for him remains to be seen.
As for Jon Huntsman's last place finish, he wasn't competing in Iowa anyway, saving his money and spending all of his time in New Hampshire, hoping for a strong showing in territory that has proven friendly to more moderate Republicans in the past. While Romney seems to be extending his lead in the Granite State, Huntsman figures a strong second will allow him to move on to other primaries later this month.
It's all about perception, of course. "Exceeding expectations" -- or not -- is the name of the game. In that contest, Rick Santorum has aced the Iowa test. How he did it is not complicated. The former Pennsylvania senator held a staggering 358 town hall meetings in the last year, visited every one of Iowa's 99 counties, and counted on a volunteer network of churches, pastors, and Christian activists who worked tirelessly on his behalf. If national pundits believed that retail politics were not as important in Iowa as debate performances and paid advertising, they might want to rethink that formula after Santorum's effort in 2012.
With the momentum he will get from his Iowa campaign, Santorum is seeing a huge increase in his fundraising. A Santorum staffer told CNN that "the campaign raised more money in the last week than they raised on-line the past six months." He added that "fundraising is between 300% and 400% higher on a daily basis than it was just ten days ago." The candidate raised only $700,000 in the third quarter and ended up at the end of the year with just $190,000 in cash.
But the rocket-powered boost in fundraising has already fueled some ad buys in New Hampshire, and next week, Santorum will begin to run ads in South Carolina. It is likely that he will preserve most of his cash for that primary, and make little more than a token effort in New Hampshire. South Carolina has picked the eventual Republican nominee for the last 30 years and Santorum is expected to run strongly in one of the most conservative states in the union.
The entrance polls revealed that Santorum cleaned up with conservative Christians, winning 30% of those voters who made up nearly 60% of caucus attendees. He also did very well with those who identified themselves as "very conservative" -- a good omen for his efforts to come in South Carolina.
What Santorum does with this pivotal moment when he will basically be introduced to the American people for the first time is crucial. Most voters are completely unfamiliar with him and since first impressions in politics -- as in life -- are the most important, how he performs in the glare of the spotlight will tell the tale of the rest of his campaign. Media will descend on his appearances, and how he handles the crush, as well as how he crafts his message, will inform voters of how he performs under the pressure of a national campaign. It is patently unfair that the short window for Santorum's introduction will make or break him. But such is the pitiless nature of the media and politics in modern America.
The flip side of a candidate exceeding expectations -- a failure to live up to his billing -- has to be Ron Paul. While he finished a strong third, his showing is being spun by the media as a disappointment. From the entrance polls, Paul ran away with the youth vote, winning 52% of those aged 17-29. But the young people who flocked to his banner only made up 15% of caucus goers. Paul was hurt by a late spate of negative ads from several candidates that pointed to his questionable foreign policy views as well as other problematic positions that highlight his libertarianism rather than his conservatism.
Paul has a strong organization in New Hampshire but he will probably not achieve the same kind of success in a state that looks like a lock for Romney. It's hard to come to any other conclusion except that Iowa was Paul's high water mark. And while he will compete in every primary up to the convention, his chances of winning the nomination disappeared in the cold Iowa night.
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