Iowa is not only the first Caucus state but is also known as the “Great Sifter.” And IA definitely sifted. As I write this with 98% of precincts reporting Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney battle for the top spot (which means a few dozen votes), followed by Ron Paul with 21%. Then a noticeable drop-off occurs and 4th place finisher Newt Gingrich gets 13% followed by Rick Perry with 10%. Michelle Bachmann underwhelmed at 5% and Jon Huntsman barely registered as a blip on the radar with less than 1%.
With the IA results all but in and Santorum and Romney basically 1-2 what do these results mean? First-off Iowa has winnowed the field. Michelle Bachmann is now all but dead. Jon Huntsman has staked his entire campaign on New Hampshire and pulling off a “Santorum there.” But Iowans never even gave him a second thought during the Caucus. Perry underwhelmed and if he was in the position of Bachmann he would be out. Ditto for Gingrich. But both Gingrich and Perry can stake a legit claim to finishing no worse than 5th in NH and then fighting it out in South Carolina. Of the top three finishers in IA only one candidate, Mitt Romney, appears to have a deep national following.
One of the clear winners in the Caucus results was Santorum. The obscure, former two term Senator from PA worked the state more than any other candidate and in the end it paid off. He won among social and very conservative voters by big margins. He won in deeply evangelical pockets of the state as well. With Santorum’s rise in IA he will have to deal with increased scrutiny. More than that he will have to try to translate this victory into money and momentum heading into NH and SC. New Hampshire is far less likely to be friendly to Santorum’s brand of conservatism then South Carolina so expect him to target South Carolina just as Gingrich and Perry will.
The other clear winner of the Caucus was Romney. His chief rivals for the nomination, Perry and Gingrich, come out of the state battered and bruised. Gingrich and Perry are the only candidates with the support and money to seriously compete with Romney for the nomination. Paul has a following but it is not deep and many Republicans (over half) are turned off by him. Romney’s campaign in IA threaded a very thin needle and split conservative support three ways (four if we include Bachmann) robbing any viable nominee of a chance to come out of IA with momentum. Sure Santorum comes out of IA a winner, but outside of IA he has no campaign, money or support. At this point Romney is looking pretty for the nomination, especially if he wins in NH by big margins next week.
The Romney campaign also has to be pleased by what the entrance polls told them from CNN and Fox. Of the Caucus goers that voted based on electability Romney got 49%. Romney won among somewhat conservative and moderate voters by big margins and finished third among very conservative voters. Romney also won among small town and suburban voters (the kinds of voters that swing close elections). Santorum’s support almost exclusively came from rural areas and from very conservative voters.
It is now safe to say the race will follow a predictable pattern in the coming two weeks. The media will tout the results of IA and turn increasing scrutiny onto Santorum. Whether he wilts or not is the question. Santorum will scramble to garner support in NH but is unlikely to get enough money or momentum in a week to compete seriously. Romney and Gingrich will also turn their attention to New Hampshire. Meanwhile Huntsman will do everything he can to win in NH. If he finishes poorly he is out. Perry may give some passing attention to NH but will quickly turn to South Carolina. Gingrich will soon follow. For the “Not-Romney” vote South Carolina is their bulwark. But if NH does not winnow the field down further by eliminating Gingrich or Perry than Romney could conceivably squeak by with a win in SC, use that to win in Florida and end the race in all but name (Paul is always in it until the end). With Santorum, Gingrich and Perry in the SC race the conservative vote could be split three ways and Romney could win with a plurality.
The overall answer one should come out of the IA Caucuses with is that Mitt Romney is now officially the GOP front-runner. His strong finish in IA, couple with an expected in NH next week, millions in the campaign coffers, and a national campaign infrastructure show the race is now his to lose. Entrance polling also showed that many Republicans believe he can beat Obama and that he can win conservative voters. For Romney that is yet another feather in his cap out of IA. It is possible that Romney could face roadblocks even after IA and NH but unlikely. Santorum is not a strong candidate once the media and Romney’s Super PAC get on him and Perry and Gingrich are limping into NH and SC. And Ron Paul does not even get the consideration of over 60% of Republicans to support him. Romney is looking more and more likely to be the GOP nominee.