Here are my takeaways from this year’s Iowa Caucus:
1. Not a Three-Way Finish
The Iowa results seem to suggest a close three-way race—25-25-21. Yet among self-identified Republicans, the totals were actually 28-27-14, showing that Santorum and Romney lead the base, while independents and new voters propelled Paul. That makes Paul more likely to fade, because other states do not have same-day registration like Iowa. In a Republican primary, Republicans matter.
2. Evangelicals Actually Like Ron Paul
In a huge and under-reported development, Iowa’s evangelical voters—who make up the majority of the caucus—backed Paul more than any other candidate besides Santorum. (About 32 percent went for Santorum and 19 percent for Paul.) Perry and Bachmann had repeatedly sought that voting bloc, but Paul’s principled conservatism and pro-life views still broke through. That may scare establishment Republicans—Fox News was the only cable channel to cut off Paul’s caucus speech.
3. But Santorum Is Already Squandering His Surge
Rick Santorum bounded to an incredible finish in Iowa, despite a tiny budget and a media blackout for most of 2011. But there are already signs that his campaign is not ready for prime time—literally. Santorum’s aides failed to get him on prime-time television for a “victory” speech, for example, which would have provided his largest, unfiltered audience to date. (He took the stage at 12:20 am ET.) Team Santorum simply waited while lesser candidates took larger billing, a galling rookie mistake. The Iowa Caucus is not a binding election night—a candidate may simply walk on stage to spin his “victory,” without waiting for opponents to officially concede. Bill Clinton’s famous “Comeback Kid” victory speech, after all, was delivered during a second place finish in New Hampshire
That’s not all. Iowans noticed that Santorum’s budget was so tight he didn’t even have a bus—never mind a plane—and he campaigned out of the passenger seat of a vehicle called the “Chuck Truck.” But apparently he doesn’t have an Internet strategist, either. On Caucus Night, the Santorum Campaign’s website was not updated with any kind of “ask” for fundraising or e-mail registration. That’s a shame, because Santorum was the only candidate name that leapt into Google’s hottest searches on Tuesday night (along with “Sugar Bowl”). By failing to capitalize on that interest with basic web tactics, Santorum left a lot of money on the table. One veteran of Obama’s 2008 web team estimated the cost was in the millions of dollars. For Wednesday, though, the Santorum Campaign had a fundraising e-mail ready declaring “we shocked the world last night in Iowa.”
4. Gingrich May Stay In to Stop Romney
Newt Gingrich easily gave the most gripping speech on caucus night, and by associating himself with Santorum and pledging to “reserve the right to tell the truth” about Romney’s shortcomings, he cast himself as a relevant spoiler in the days to come. Political operatives often say the most dangerous opponents are those who, for whatever ideological or personal reasons, are willing to suppress their ambition in pursuit of a “murder-suicide” strategy. Many Democrats say that’s what really halted Howard Dean in 2003, for example, when Richard Gephardt went all in to stop the Vermont insurgent. And at the end of the night, Gingrich sounded like he would rather be Rick Santorum’s coach than Mitt Romney’s running mate. With two high-profile debates between now and the New Hampshire primary, that could be an influential perch.