The counting was still going on when I went to bed last night, so the first thing that I did when I woke up was to check my iPad for the results. I wasn’t too surprised to see that Mitt Romney had won the Iowa caucuses, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if Rick Santorum had prevailed, either. Both men gain from the night’s conclusion, but Romney had become a winner almost from the moment the Iowa GOP began tallying the votes. CNN asked me for some spot analysis (late) last night, and I explained why Romney was on track to have a pretty good night either way:
His partners at the top of the chart make it even better for Romney. Had Newt Gingrich or Rick Perry — or both — won or finished strong in Iowa, Romney would have a much tougher task in consolidating support to secure the nomination quickly.
Perry could have presented a formidable opponent in terms of organization and fundraising, while Gingrich would have challenged Romney in debates all through the primaries in much the same way that Hillary Clinton dogged Barack Obama all through the winter and spring of 2008 before finally admitting defeat as summer arrived.
Gingrich, however, finished a distant fourth place despite having led the polling in Iowa a couple of weeks ago. Perry was an even bigger disappointment; he had precinct captains at every meeting stumping for him, and he spent well in excess of $1 million in a final saturation ad campaign. His low finish has prompted the governor to return to Texas to “reassess” his candidacy, which means that he’s almost certain to withdraw.
Paul and Santorum present fewer difficulties for Romney. Santorum could become a rally point for social conservatives, but if Perry and Gingrich remain in the race, that’s less likely. Santorum’s low fundraising numbers hark back to the Huckabee campaign, which won Iowa but lacked the resources to capitalize on the victory.
Byron York sees this more as an embarrassing escape than a good night:
Santorum could reasonably claim a moral victory because he had started so far behind and labored in obscurity for so long. But Romney won the actual victory, even if it was by just eight votes. And Romney did it far more easily than Santorum, attending a total of 38 campaign events in a mere 19 days in Iowa while Santorum attended more than 350 campaign events in 105 days in the state. If the caucuses were determined by bang-for-the-buck, Romney would have won in a walk.
In the end, Romney escaped humiliation, and he did it at far less cost than in 2007-2008, when he gave Iowa everything he had in his first run for the GOP nomination. “If you look back four years ago, we had 52 paid staff in Iowa, and this time around, we have five paid staff,” top Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said a few hours before Tuesday night’s results came in. “In terms of advertising, we spent $10 million in the run-up to the caucuses four years ago, and we’ve spent a fraction of that this time. And in terms of the candidate’s own appearances in Iowa, he was here 100 days or so four years ago, and this time we’re at about 15 days.” [It was actually a few more, but that doesn’t change Fehrnstrom’s point.]
So Romney avoided what would have been an embarrassing loss after his decision to go all-in in Iowa. But what now? He’s heavily favored to win in New Hampshire, but he’s likely to face a reconfigured field that will give his rivals the opportunity to pick up more support in the quest for a candidate to go up against Romney one-on-one. Iowa insiders predict that Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, who received ten and five percent of the Iowa vote, respectively, will be out of the race within 48 hours. Nationally, Bachmann and Perry are at a combined 12 percent in the polls — support that will go to some other candidate or candidates, but not to Romney. That will make Romney’s job 12 points harder.
The problem with this analysis is that it presumes that Santorum can replicate this performance throughout the early primary cycle. It took Santorum months to get into position for his first real look from Iowa voters, and he has not had to face the national scrutiny that buried Perry and has seriously bruised Gingrich. Unlike Perry, Santorum still lacks the resources to establish a ground game to challenge Romney’s in a serious fashion. Santorum won’t get much traction in New Hampshire, which mistrusts populists who win (or come close) in Iowa, especially not after being as comfortable with Romney to give him near-majority support in poll after poll.
That’s not to say that conservatives couldn’t coalesce behind Santorum if everyone else drops out. Perry is going back to Texas, and as I write this, there are rumblings on Twitter that Michele Bachmann will hold a presser this morning in Des Moines and will also not travel to South Carolina. That puts 12 points in Iowa up for grabs — in Iowa. In South Carolina, in a poll taken before Santorum’s surge but while Gingrich dominated the polling, that would be 13 points … to add to 4 for Santorum, which doesn’t even get to the 19 points that Romney was drawing in South Carolina before his Iowa win.
Romney benefits by having Iowa produce as his closest rivals a fringe libertarian and a strong conservative with a weak organization. The latter can be fixed, but Santorum only has days in which to do so, and the longer other candidates stay in the race the less he can do so. It may not have been a great night for Romney, but it was a pretty good one.