The Iowa Reversal


Note: This article is cross-posted from Rhodes Cook’s political blog.

Up and down and all around the 2012 Republican presidential campaign has gone. It has probably been the craziest nominating race in the last generation.

And from this vantage point, the weirdest event of all thus far was the changing outcome in Iowa – from an 8-vote caucus night “victory” for Mitt Romney Jan. 3 to a 34-vote advantage for Rick Santorum more than two weeks later when the vote was finalized. The state party actually threw up its hands at the end and said no winner could be definitively declared since the results from all precincts could not be retrieved. It expressed congratulations to both candidates.

In a half century of observing presidential nominating campaigns, I have never seen anything like this. Not just the unusual closeness of the vote, but the inability of the folks counting the votes to determine a true winner. The nebulous result was an embarrassment to the Iowa caucuses in general and the Republican Party of Iowa in particular.

Besides that, several other points stand out. First, the Iowa situation was not fair to Santorum. Rather than coming into New Hampshire off an apparent victory, he entered the state basically becalmed. It was Romney who possessed the momentum, getting extensive credit for scoring an ever so narrow victory in hostile terrain.

It is arguable that the initial interpretation of the Iowa result pushed Romney up and Santorum down by several percentage points in the Granite State. It probably cost the latter a chance at third, or even a momentum-producing second place heading off to South Carolina. And it helped Romney swell his winning percentage in New Hampshire to an imposing 39%, which aided him in crafting an image as the GOP’s inevitable nominee.

A second point: the changing Iowa outcome exposed the murky world of caucus vote-counting. In primary states, the elections are virtually always administered by the states themselves, which have long experience in conducting them. In caucus states, the balloting is nearly always overseen by the parties, which have comparatively little experience in putting on a statewide election.

Altogether, eight of 1,774 precincts failed to submit their official caucus vote to the Iowa GOP. But believe it or not, that is a much higher rate of completeness than ever exists in many caucus states, where a final tally with less than 90% of all voting sites can often be the norm.

This is important to note because in the weeks ahead, a wave of caucus states will be in the spotlight. Nevada votes Feb. 4. Maine starts its process the same day and continues for a week. Colorado and Minnesota caucus on Feb. 7, and Washington on March 3. Seven more states are scheduled to hold caucuses in the following two weeks. Hopefully, the contests will not be too close in any of these states, or the possibility of another Iowa-style imbroglio could well result.