Iowa Caucus: Inside the Romney-Santorum Photo Finish

Updated

The surging Pennsylvanian delivered a strong performance Tuesday, but he'll still struggle to stop Mitt Romney in New Hampshire and beyond.

Google and the Iowa Republican Party have collaborated on a map feeding results of the caucuses to the Web in real time. As of 12:25 EST, the race too close to call. Mouse over the 99 counties to watch results come in.

No matter who wins Iowa's caucuses, this broader bottom line remains: Mitt Romney is the odds-on favorite to win the Republican presidential nomination, and the quirky caucuses padded his hand.

Early returns suggest that one of two candidates will win Iowa: Romney or former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas was a close third.

But over the long term, who lost big in Iowa may matter more than who narrowly won.

The two biggest threats to Romney finished out of the running: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Their donor bases and political standing made them the most likely candidate to emerge as a conservative alternative to Romney.

Now, suddenly, they are limping out of Iowa -- Gingrich to New Hampshire and Perry to Texas, where he will likely call it quits -- and the question remains: Who will be the anybody-but-Romney candidate? Santorum laid claim to that title with a late surge in Iowa, but others have emerged as the conservative favorite -- and fallen.

The race now moves to New Hampshire, where Romney is well known as the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts. He holds a massive lead in New Hampshire polls, and has built by far the field's best political organization.

If Romney wins both Iowa and New Hampshire, he would be the first non-incumbent Republican to sweep the states since the modern caucuses were formed. There is a reason why that's never been done: Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire are mirror images of one another and, taken together, reflect the broad GOP coalition. In other words, a candidate who can win older, more conservative GOP voters in Iowa as well as white-collar, independent-minded Republicans in New Hampshire should be able to win everywhere.

Stop Romney in South Carolina? Well, he has essentially already won over a GOP coalition that resembles South Carolina's diverse electorate. Iowa plus New Hampshire equals South Carolina.

Romney learned many lessons from his failed 2008 run and built a smart, disciplined campaign in New Hampshire and elsewhere. More important, he was blessed with a relatively weak field of rivals who are dividing anti-Romney conservative voters and barely uttering a negative word about the front-runner.

"You'd rather be lucky than good," said former New Hampshire GOP Chairman Steve Duprey who is not backing any candidate. "But it's best if you're both."

Paul showed in Iowa that he is capable of bringing new voters into the GOP fold, particularly young ones. Entrance polls showed that the Iowa voting coalition was younger and more independent than in 2008, mostly due to Paul's efforts.

The GOP establishment can't ignore Paul. While the quirky, isolationist candidate is highly unlikely to win the nomination, he could earn a chunk of delegates and the convention leverage that comes with them.

While Santorum will get a boost out of Iowa with his eleventh-hour surge, he has no money or infrastructure in the states beyond Iowa. Still, his Iowa bounce could put a dent into Romney's New Hampshire lead and give Santorum standing to challenge Romney in South Carolina. Santorum has visited New Hampshire nearly as much as Romney, and his national campaign manager, Mike Biundo, is a New Hampshire operative.

Entrance polls showed that Santorum fared best among voters who favor social issues and were looking for a candidate with strong, moral character.

Romney tended to appeal to older, wealthier and better educated Iowans. Most important: The quality most sought by voters in a candidate was his or her ability to defeat President Obama, and nearly half of the "electability" voters backed Romney.

Of course, it's too early to declare the race over. In politics, a lot can happen in a little time. Indeed, Romney still has not shown that he can defeat a single rival who galvanizes conservative voters. Nor has he had to face concerted, sustained attacks on his record and character.

Gingrich promised to change that Tuesday night, sharply criticizing Romney's on several fronts in a preview of his New Hampshire strategy. "We are not going to run nasty ads," Gingrich said. "But I do reserve the right to tell the truth. If the truth appears negative, that might be more of a comment on (Romney's) record."

He attacks Romney in a New Hampshire newspaper ad Wednesday, and will go full-bore in both New Hampshire debates this weekend. If Gingrich can afford negative TV ads, he'll air them. If he doesn't, that's a blessing for Romney, a candidate who thus far is both lucky and good.

Raw caucus results have also been published in Google Fusion tables on a precinct by precinct basis and at the county-level.

Formal results will be posted by the Iowa GOP on its website.

Presented by

Ron Fournier is editorial director of National Journal.

The Blacksmith: A Short Film About Art Forged From Metal

"I'm exploiting the maximum of what you can ask a piece of metal to do."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

Video

The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"

More in Politics

Just In