After eight months of fierce politicking, Iowa delivered what amounts to a split decision at its first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses on Tuesday. Longtime frontrunner Mitt Romney and surging social conservative Rick Santorum ended the night in a virtual tie, each garnering roughly 24.5 percent and Romney squeaking out an 8-vote win. Ron Paul came in third, with about 21.5 percent of the vote, followed by Newt Gingrich (13.3 percent), Rick Perry (10.3 percent), and Michele Bachmann (5 percent). Who wins (and loses) in this "amazing" photo finish? Here, a brief guide:
The socially conservative former senator is clearly "the night's big winner," says Jim Geraghty at National Review. There are still questions about whether Santorum can turn his Iowa victory into a winning national campaign, but "I suspect that the considerable number of anybody-but-Romney Republicans will eagerly step forward and help assemble that infrastructure." In a Romney-Santorum matchup, Romney will still have his huge war chest, but Santorum "will have access to funds from the grassroots."
Romney would have been fine with a third-place finish behind Santorum and Paul, so a first-place finish in conservative Iowa is "sweet for him no matter how narrow the margin of victory," says Jonathan Tobin at Commentary. The biggest threat to him winning the GOP nomination "was for one of his conservative rivals to break out from the pack." But Gingrich and Perry finished in a distant fourth and fifth. And since Santorum failed to trounce Mitt, Iowa "constitutes a strategic victory."
The libertarian congressman got the much-cherished third ticket out of Iowa, thanks to a strong turnout from independents, Democrats, and young voters. But really, "how do you evaluate a candidate like Ron Paul?" says National Review's Geraghty. "He's a Republican candidate for those who hate all of the other Republican candidates." If anything, Paul proved he could mount a strong third-party bid, Sarah Palin tells Fox's Neil Cavuto. That gives him power, and "the worst thing that the GOP machine can do is marginalize Ron Paul and his supporters."
The Santorum-Romney split means this GOP race "could go on for a long time, and damage everyone involved," says Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Beast. "Romney is failing to catch fire," and "once the vetting of Santorum gets going," he will lose a lot of young voters over his out-there views. And "in a year when the GOP was supposed to be rearing to defeat Obama," the Right failed to turn out more Republican voters than in 2008. "Obama cannot be too worried tonight, can he?"
Paul is upbeat about his third-place finish, despite having led in recent polls and early caucus returns, and getting as high as 50 percent in online betting markets to win Iowa. But before this gets "lost in the shuffle," says Allahpundit at Hot Air, remember "that Ron Paul felt confident enough about his position this weekend to predict a first or second place finish. Quote: 'I doubt if I'll come in third or fourth.'" Plus, says Jennifer Rubin at The Washington Post, he only placed this high because of "independent voters who crashed the Iowa caucuses," not the Republicans who will ultimately decide the nomination.
Perry finished in a lowly fifth, despite spending as much as $6 million in the state. That was enough to have him "headed back to Texas to 'reassess' whether there's a path to the nomination for him," says Hot Air's Allahpundit. That sure "sounds like it's over." Now that he's apparently dropping out, Perry actually "looks relieved in a way," says Sullivan at The Daily Beast. I bet the GOP is, too. "Perry is one of the most embarrassingly awful candidates for a national party since Sarah Palin."
Bachmann had high hopes for Iowa after winning a much-touted popularity contest in Ames last August, but her embarrassingly low 6,000-vote statewide tally on Tuesday is "just slightly more than she got in the Ames Straw Poll," says Jim Newell at Gawker. "She will have to drop out." Yeah, the Minnesota congresswoman "is kidding herself if she doesn't realize that her quest is finished, says Commentary's Tobin. "Bachmann is a passionate ideologue but she never made a case for herself as a potential president."
Fewer Republicans caucused in Iowa this year than in 2008, which is bad news for a party banking on "huge waves of enthusiasm" to unseat Obama, says Nate Silver at The New York Times. Indeed, "more people are tweeting this caucus than are voting in it. Literally," says Commentary's John Podhoretz on Twitter. Romney is still the favorite to win the nomination, says Scott Galupo at U.S. News, but he certainly didn't "show that he can generate the kind of groundswell of enthusiasm that, if you're a Republican, you'd like to see right now." Worse for the GOP, Romney did best "among wealthy, older voters," a "segment of the country that's literally dying."