The Iowa caucuses

Final results from Iowa: 

Mitt Romney: 25%, 30,015 votes (8 votes ahead of Santorum)

Rick Santorum: 25%, 30,007 votes (3,788 votes ahead of Paul)

Ron Paul: 21%, 26,219 votes (9,968 votes ahead of Gingrich)

Newt Gingrich: 13%, 16,251 votes

Rick Perry: 10%, 12,604 votes

Michele Bachmann: 5%, 6,073 votes

Jon Huntsman: 1%, 745 votes

Herman Cain: 0%, 58 votes

Buddy Roemer: 0%, 31 votes

(Note: I am very sad that other major media outlets are not reporting Buddy Roemer’s vote totals.  The line must be drawn against such scurrilous bias here and now!  Oh, and congratulations to Herman Cain for beating Buddy Roemer.)

Iowa is a small state.  How small?  For much of the night on Tuesday, the difference between front-runners Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul amounted to less than a hundred votes.  Victory was achieved with less than thirty thousand votes apiece for photo-finish winners Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney.  They were swapping single-digit leads while delivering their victory speeches.  In the end, a few busloads of voters trampled mighty campaign narratives into dust.

A huge amount of money was laid out to carve up those 123,000 magical caucus votes, which are non-binding and commit no actual delegates.  Santorum invested more sweat than cash, and paid less than three bucks in advertising for each vote he garnered.  Rick Perry, on the other hand, spent six million dollars to win less than 12,000 votes and limp into fifth place, which works out to a whopping $500 per vote. 

And yet, this tiny population of Iowa voters has shaken up the race.  A deeply disappointing third place finish, four thousand votes behind the front-runners, blows a hole in Ron Paul’s upstart bid.  His organization, loyal following, and enormous support from non-Republican caucus voters was supposed to hand him the state, or at least put him right behind Mitt Romney.  Instead, the upstart everyone will be talking about tomorrow is Rick Santorum. 

Michele Bachmann came in dead last, save for Jon Huntsman, who narrowly avoided becoming an asterisk.  She didn’t win a single county.  That’s a terrible finish for the winner of the Ames straw poll, and will factor into the next four years of musings about whether the Ames poll and Iowa caucus have any value as predictors of campaign success.  Bachmann didn’t formally drop out of the race Tuesday night, but barring a miracle in South Carolina or Florida, she’s running on fumes, and needs to start thinking about her next House race.

Huntsman became, tangentially, a point of interest for half an hour during the caucuses, when Ron Paul’s Twitter account issued a sarcastic taunt to the Huntsman campaign: “We found your one Iowa voter, he’s in Linn precinct 5 you might want to call him and say thanks.”  Paul claimed a staffer wrote this without his knowledge.  In light of his newsletter controversy, that’s probably not the story he wants to be telling right now.  The Tweet was later deleted, which is far more disturbingly out-of-touch than sending it in the first place, as well as marking the first documented instance of someone feeling bad about mocking Jon Huntsman.  The Internet does not forget.

Newt Gingrich chugged in fourth place, which seemed to energize him for further combat.  It’s not good for yesterday’s front-runner to come in fourth, but it’s probably not bad enough to be fatal, assuming he retains his strength in South Carolina and Florida.  A feisty Gingrich claimed that his halfway-decent finish vindicated his endurance against an unprecedented deluge of negative advertising, echoing what Marv said in “Sin City” when the first attempt to fry him in the electric chair was unsuccessful, although Marv used somewhat more colorful language.

Rick Perry didn’t get the big comeback surprise he was hoping for, but he has enough funding and organization for a few more primaries.  One problem is that his Iowa shellacking might prevent him from receiving an invitation to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference debate, to be televised by CNN, right before the South Carolina primary.  As Joel Gehrke of the Washington Examiner explains, there are four ways to qualify for the debate:  “First and second, they can place in the top four in either Iowa or New Hampshire. Third and fourth, they can qualify by averaging seven percent support in three polls conducted nationally or in South Carolina by certain approved media and polling organizations.”

Perry’s only pulling 2.5% support in the RealClearPolitics polling average for New Hampshire right now, which actually puts him in last place.  He’s at 5.7% in South Carolina, and 6.2% nationally.  Unless he can kick those poll numbers up, his Iowa disappointment might keep him out of that debate, which would really hurt his chances for launching a South Carolina comeback.  Late Tuesday night, Perry was talking about returning to Texas to “re-assess” his campaign.  “Re-assess” is not a happy word in politics.

Mitt Romney has nothing to worry about in the near term, as he sits on a formidable 20-point lead in New Hampshire.  However, Romney once again failed to crack that damnable 25% glass ceiling for his campaign – he ended up with exactly 25% of the vote, in fact.  He’s still the front-runner nobody likes, the presumptive nominee that 75% of the Republican electorate presumes to question.  Ending the Iowa race neck-and-neck with a come-from-behind upstart like Santorum does not enhance his image. 

As for man of the hour Rick Santorum, his big finish in Iowa will delight old-fashioned political observers, gratified to see the hard work of shoe-leather retail campaigning trump big-bucks TV advertising.  Unfortunately, that’s not really an effort Santorum can duplicate elsewhere.  If he draws a great deal of support from his Iowa win and surges in other states, his campaign could see a big infusion of volunteers and cash… but as we’ve seen time and again in this error-prone Republican primary, finely-tuned national political machines are difficult to cobble together on short notice.

Some interpret Santorum’s rise as meaning social issues trumped economic concerns for Iowa voters, which is said to be foolish, since Obama’s lousy economy is the key to beating him.  That’s a rather lazy analysis.  Santorum’s campaign platform includes quite a few economic proposals, and he’s been quick to bring them up during debates and campaign appearances.  One does not have to agree with these proposals to acknowledge their existence.  It’s not as if Santorum has been telling voters to forget about the economy. 

As with Bachmann’s terrible post-Ames collapse, Santorum’s surge into a troubled future, with no more obvious wins currently on the horizon, will fuel doubts about the value of the Iowa caucuses.  A lot of energy was poured into securing victories that will matter greatly for a few more weeks… and then be all but forgotten.  Campaigns are teetering on the brink, but over 99% of the national Republican electorate hasn’t voted yet.  The rest of the nation will now consider a Republican field drained of blood and money by the desperate struggle to avoid getting creamed in Iowa, where perhaps 20,000 votes separated headline-grabbing triumph from dour “re-assessment.”

Update: Buzzfeed got hold of more extensive information and computed a more accurate Return on Investment for total money spent in Iowa versus votes each candidate won:

Michele Bachmann: $4 per vote

Rick Santorum: $21 per vote

Newt Gingrich: $92 per vote

Ron Paul: $104 per vote

Mitt Romney: $156 per vote

Rick Perry: $480 per vote

Reading that Perry number makes my wallet ache harder than anything except Barack Obama announcing a new “green energy” initiative.