(Des Moines Register) Rivals Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum waged a down-to-the-wire battle for the Iowa Republican caucuses Tuesday, but shortly after 1:30 a.m. today, Romney was declared the victor by eight votes.
Romney won 30,015 votes, compared with 30,007 for Santorum, out of 122,255 cast.
Each of the men won 25 percent of the vote and proclaimed victory.
Ron Paul was third, followed by Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Jon Huntsman.
Romney’s campaign strategists had carefully staged expectations to persuade the public and media that the former Massachusetts governor could emerge strongly from Iowa with a close second- or third-place finish.
He campaigned here about a fourth as much as during his first presidential bid four years ago, when he finished second in Iowa. But Romney managed to capture the top prize anyway.
His victory capped one of the most tumultuous presidential caucus campaigns that Iowa has witnessed.
In early August, Bachmann, a Minnesota congressman, triumphed in the Iowa straw poll and seemed a likely caucus-night victor. Or perhaps Paul, a Texas congressman, who finished a respect-denying 152 votes behind her in Ames.
By early September, Perry, the Texas governor, was the star of the 2012 race.
By early October, Herman Cain, a retired pizza chain chief was the front-runner in Iowa polling.
By early December, Gingrich, a former U.S. House Speaker, was king.
But the caucuses were in early January.
Promising polling injected Santorum’s campaign with late-in-the-campaign adrenaline. But caucusgoers returned Tuesday night – by a hair – to Romney, the leader in The Des Moines Register’s June Iowa Poll, whom.
“Every major candidate got his or her moment in the sun at some point,” said political analyst Larry Sabato of Virginia. “It’s their fault if they were unable to sustain it, but Iowa paid close attention to the message each was delivering at least for their high-riding, top of the heap period.”
The Iowa race, which intensified in the final days, might not serve as the weed-out factor it usually does. Next on the calendar: an ABC News debate in New Hampshire Saturday night, and NBC’s debate on “Meet the Press” Sunday morning, leading up to the Granite State’s primary on Tuesday.
“It won’t cost much to remain viable through New Hampshire with that free media offer,” Iowa caucuses historian Jeff Stein said.
Across the state, crowds in the last few days this caucus cycle were bigger than four years ago, when Romney’s Iowa campaign staff of 52 was 10 times larger. The huge audiences were a gratifying sight for Romney backers who have worked for five years for a caucus victory, said David Kochel, Romney’s Iowa strategist.
“You just feel like you’ve been on a long journey, and everyone is arm in arm taking this across the finish line,” he said.
This time, Romney’s campaign machine rumbled quietly along without him. Until the final week, he popped in for only occasional visits, with an upbeat message about economic opportunity.
Romney has been like the fictional character Rocky Balboa over the course of the campaign season, as his opponents landed punch after punch on him, GOP strategist David Polyansky said.
“You find yourself screaming at the movie screen, urging him to get in the fight and hit back,” he said. “And then it dawns on you that Rocky was merely drawing in his opponents, tiring them out, and then was prepared to lay the decisive blows and score the knock out.”
Last night’s decision was hardly a knockout, though – Romney got almost the same number of votes as four years ago.
This was by far the closest contest in the modern history of the Iowa Republican caucuses (since 1976). In the previous closest race, George H. W. Bush edged Ronald Reagan in 1980 by 2.1 percentage points, or 2,182 votes of the 106,051 cast.
The investment of $10 million, more than 70 candidate days and thousands of voter contacts four years ago paid off because a significant number of his 2008 supporters stuck with him, Kochel said.
Romney targeted mainstream, business-oriented Republicans, including those who ushered Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad back into the governor’s mansion in fall 2010. Romney left his competitors to wrestle for smaller blocs of born-again Christians, social conservatives and tea party supporters.
Santorum, a coal miner’s son from Pennsylvania, was little more than an afterthought until the final weeks of the race.
Five years ago, Santorum was given up for political dead after his devastating 18-point loss in a U.S. Senate re-election bid. And in this race, he was mired in polling nowhereville until he turned into a last-instant supernova.
Santorum’s second-place finish was a startling triumph for a candidate who last month drew only a handful of people to some of his campaign events, even after he threw himself into more than 100 days on the campaign trail, circling the state in campaign aide Chuck Laudner’s vehicle (the “Chuck Truck”).
“You cannot discredit work in the caucus,” said state Rep. Erik Helland, R-Johnston, the House GOP whip. “Rick Santorum worked for it.”
When The Des Moines Register began its final pre-caucus polling a week before caucus night, Santorum was at 10 percent among likely Iowa GOP caucusgoers, but jetted to 22 percent by the end of polling Friday, just 1 percentage point behind Romney.
The promising polling injected Santorum’s campaign with adrenaline – and swelled his crowds and media attention.
“I’ve had the national media crawling up anywhere they can crawl,” Santorum said at a coffee shop campaign stop on New Year’s Day. In a sign of confidence, Santorum’s campaign later that day trumpeted details about an “IOWA CAUCUS NIGHT VICTORY PARTY.”
Paul’s support increased in each of The Des Moines Register’s four pre-caucus Iowa Polls. Many Iowa caucusgoers connected with Paul’s belief in less government spending and regulation, in free trade and private property rights and in opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Paul’s campaign was considered the best-prepared team in Iowa – well-funded and focused on the task at hand.
“While there certainly are a significant number of Iowa Republicans who would never consider caucusing for Ron Paul, he is one of the few candidates with the level of intensity by his supporters to make up for such a disadvantage,” Polyansky said.
But caucusgoers Tuesday night denied him the top two tickets out of Iowa.
Some respondents in last week’s Iowa Poll said they worried about Paul’s prospects in the general election. Several recent polls taken in December – by CNN-Opinion Research, ABC News-Washington Post, NBC-Wall Street Journal and Rasmussen Reports put Obama ahead of Paul in a hypothetical matchup by anywhere from seven to 13 points.
After Paul placed second in the Register’s late November Iowa Poll, other candidates began to step up attacks, in particular criticizing his views on Iran. Paul believes his rivals are overreacting to Iran’s potential for developing nuclear weapons. News stories also called attention in recent weeks to newsletters he sponsored in the late 1970s that contained racist remarks.
Tuesday night, Paul told about 500 supporters he’d compete in New Hampshire. “This momentum is going to continue and this movement is going to continue,” he vowed. “We will go on, we will raise the money.”
Gingrich introduced a “21st Century Contract with America” in late September and claimed the mantle of the idea guy in the 2012 race. He soared to the top of the polls in Iowa in late November.
But by last week’s Iowa Poll, likely caucusgoers had a very negative opinion of him, picking him as the least consistent in the field, the most ego-driven and the least dedicated to limiting the influence of government or reducing government debt.
A barrage of negative advertisements fueled some of that, as well as Gingrich’s own comments, poll respondents said.
Perry had never lost an election until last night.
When he burst into the race, he was a well-financed juggernaut, powerful enough to make his rivals nervous. He announced his candidacy in South Carolina the day of the straw poll, “drowning out Bachmann’s victory lap but indicating a level of unsophistication when it comes to the pride that Iowans feel about ‘process,’” Polyansky said.
After that, “Perry spent an inordinate amount of time in states such as New Hampshire and South Carolina – leaving his lead/flank in Iowa open to others who took advantage of it and never let go,” Polyansky said.
Iowa Republicans’ confidence in him faltered when he stumbled through groggy debate performances, including his “oops” moment when he couldn’t recite the third of three agencies he wants to eliminate.
Perry said he would head home to Texas “to determine whether there is a path forward” with a fifth-place result.
“With the voters’ decision tonight in Iowa, I decided to return to Texas, assess the results of tonight’s caucus, determine whether there is a path forward for myself in this race,” he said.
Bachmann declared she would run for president in June during a nationally televised debate, then made her candidacy official during a rally in her hometown of Waterloo. But her campaign sagged immediately after the straw poll, as caucusgoers winced over a series of verbal gaffes, including that movie star John Wayne was from Waterloo and that NATO airstrikes have killed as many as 30,000 civilians in Libya. By the latest Iowa Poll, likely caucusgoers rated her the least knowledgeable in the field.
During the final push, Bachmann defiantly ignored warning signs of trouble, smiling through interviews about her dismal poll numbers and last week’s defection of her Iowa chairman to Paul’s campaign.
Like Perry, she’s bypassing New Hampshire to see whether she can boost her prospects in South Carolina.
After Bachmann’s remarks to supporters, her campaign manager Keith Nahigian confirmed that the campaign is continuing, and will move on to South Carolina as Bachmann has said it would all week.
“Full steam ahead,” Nahigian said.
Huntsman didn’t compete in Iowa, deciding to focus his campaign on New Hampshire.