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What really happened in Iowa: a closer look at the Iowa Caucuses

by Wes Messamore, published

Counting votes late into the night, a close tie for first place emerged from the Republican Party of Iowa in its first-in-the-nation presidential nominating caucus. Mitt Romney emerged with the most votes at 30,015, but just barely, with Rick Santorum trailing by a mere eight votes at 30,007. Ron Paul finished a strong third place with 26,219 votes followed by Newt Gingrich in a distant fourth with 16,251. Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann headed up the bottom tier in fifth and sixth place respectively. Bachmann has subsequently announced that she will be dropping out of the race, while Perry claims that he will focus on South Carolina (after New Hampshire).

Now with the "horse-race"-style reporting above out of the way, let's take a closer look at what really happened in Iowa on Tuesday, paying close attention to the history and nature of the Iowa Caucus in order to understand what it all means. Important questions to ask are: What are the Iowa Caucuses? How are they different than a primary? How do they work? What is their relevance to Independent voters?

It's not a big state, nor a rich state, but by an accident of history, Iowa has ended up hosting the nation's first major electoral event in the presidential nominating process every four years for both major political parties, an honor and a power that its government and state political parties have jealously guarded and protected to guarantee their continued influence in national politics. The irony, however, is that Iowa is actually one of the last states in the nation to select its delegates to the national party convention. Iowa's first-in-the-nation vote is technically just a straw poll, and its actual nomination of delegates to the national party convention happens near the end of the national primary process.

Unlike the upcoming New Hampshire Primary and other party primaries throughout the nation, caucus goers this Tuesday did not make any decisions that would bind Iowa's 28 eventual delegates to the national convention. While members of Iowa's 1,774 precinct caucuses did vote for their presidential pick, their operative vote was for delegates to represent their precinct to Iowa's 99 county conventions later in the year. At the county conventions, precinct delegates nominate county delegates to Iowa's state convention, which will then pick delegates for the party's national nominating convention. In short, the Iowa Caucus vote on Tuesday was "non-binding" and other than its effect on media publicity, does not effectively determine the outcome of the presidential nominating contest or even Iowa's role in it.

That's why one reporter for Business Insider suggests that "Ron Paul may have secretly won the Iowa  Caucuses" last night. Like Obama did in caucus states in 2008, Paul's campaign is hoping to secure the nomination by outworking the other campaigns and carefully learning the rules of the primary process in all 50 states and using them to its advantage. A key part of Ron Paul's campaign training involved training Paul supporters to remain at their precinct caucuses in Iowa after the presidential vote and to try and secure their precinct's nominations as a delegate to their county's convention. The eventual goal is to stack the Republican national nominating convention with Paul-supporting delegates from caucus states like Iowa, Minnesota, Maine, and Colorado. At the end of the voting yesterday, the Paul campaign seemed confident that it would secure a "strong majority" of Iowa's eventual delegates to the national convention.

Because it may not be clear which candidate a precinct delegate supports, that number is not always as easy to nail down as the overall straw poll vote and therefore doesn't garner as much media coverage, even though it is in some ways a more important number. Another interesting number from the Iowa Caucuses is the number of Independent and moderate voters who contributed to this year's record-setting turnout. As Erick Erickson notes at Red State, of the record-high 123,000 caucus-goers in Iowa Tuesday, so many were Independents-- and even Democrats-- that despite the record turnout, Republican turnout was even lower than it was in 2008. While only registered Republicans are allowed to vote in the caucuses, participation by Independents and Democrats is relatively easy as caucus-goers can change their registration on site at their precinct before voting.

As E. J.  Dionne notes in a Washington Post piece entitled "Three very different GOPs in Iowa," nearly a quarter of the caucus goers said they were Independents and nearly half of them voted for Ron Paul. While a majority of Iowans polled have said over recent weeks that they believe Mitt Romney has the best chance at defeating Barack Obama in the 2012 general election, Paul's strong showing among independents, moderates, and young voters-- all key constituencies that helped Obama win his primary and the general election in 2008-- indicates that the title of Ron Paul's next media blitz ad in New Hampshire might be "Electable," and should be if Ron Paul's campaign strategists are savvy.

Finally, the statewide tally last night is also significant for its effect on media publicity for the candidates leading into the next nominating elections and as a litmus test for candidate viability, one that Gingrich, Perry, and Bachmann appear to have failed. Romney, who needed a decisive win in Iowa to prevent a long, drawn out, and expensive primary ended up statistically tying Rick Santorum for first, who will certainly be riding the momentum.  However, Santorum will now face the same media scrutiny each other surging, non-Romney candidate has, and that momentum could die down swiftly because Santorum is unlikely to play well to New Hampshire's brand of Republican voters where he currently ranks fifth in polls with 6% of voter support.

Paul, who won the last of the remaining three “tickets out of Iowa” with a strong third place finish is gearing up for the long, hard, expensive primary to follow.  Though his campaign is well-positioned to out-raise– and outlast– Santorum, his fundraising prowess will likely be no match for Mitt Romney over the long haul. 2012 is beginning to look more and more like the Democratic Primary of 2008, in which Hillary Clinton– an establishment-anointed candidate with deep pockets and strong connections– battled it out with Barack Obama– a reform-oriented candidate with a strong appeal to Independents and young people, and a strong organization on the ground. Right now, it appears that Romney has the distinct advantage, but time will tell.

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