Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney edged out former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum by an eight-vote margin in the closest primary election in modern history. The primary battle on January 3 was the closest in Republican history since a 1936 South Dakota primary, which was won by 257 votes,
Romney received 30,015 votes to Santorum's 30,007 votes, according to the Iowa GOP. Romney matched his percentage from 2008, when he came in second with 25 percent of the vote. But Romney was actually down by six votes compared to last cycle. The near tie between the moderate Romney and the conservative Santorum may redound to the benefit of the Pennsylvanian, making him now a serious contender in the hustings. Any triumphalism on the part of Romney and his campaign was effectively muted by the narrow margin. Indeed, Romney was magnanimous towards both Santorum and challenger Ron Paul – the libertarian Republican from Texas – in his late night victory speech which fell short of declaring victory.
Romney and Santorum had been head-to-head as of the release of poll results on January 3, as first place went back and forth between the rivals. In the pre-dawn hours on January 4, Romney led Santorum by just one vote with 99 percent of precincts reporting. The last tallies of ballots were not released until about 2:30 am local time on January 4.
On Fox News, analyst Bill Kristol said Romney’s claim on being the inevitable Republican nominee took a “a big hit” with the photo finish in Iowa, adding that his electability might have been damaged. Romney may count on getting the endorsement of Senator John McCain, the unsuccessful 2008 presidential candidate, to give him a needed boost in New Hampshire.
Congressman Ron Paul came in third with 21 percent of the vote, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich came in fourth with 13 percent, and Texas governor Rick Perry was fifth with 10 percent. Perry told supporters in Iowa that he is reassessing his campaign strategy, a signal some took to mean that he will bow out of the race. He was scheduled to appear in South Carolina on January 4. "With the voters' decision tonight in Iowa, I have decided to return to Texas, assess the results of tonight's caucus and determine whether or not there is a path forward for myself in this race," he said. Defiant Congresswoman Michele Bachmann was at the bottom of the heap with just 5 percent of the votes tallied. Bachmann said she will not bow out, saying “I believe that I am that true conservative who can and who will defeat Barack Obama in 2012.”
Non-Republicans noted Romney's underwhelming performance. "Mitt Romney still failed to convince voters that he could be trusted to help middle class families and those still trying to reach the middle class," Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said dismissively in a statement. "So while the Republican candidates pack up their offices tomorrow morning and head out of town, President Obama will emerge from tonight's caucuses with the strongest grassroots organization and infrastructure in this critical battleground state of any candidate going forward," she noted.
Perhaps keeping in mind one of the Republican Commandments ‘Thou shalt not speak ill of fellow Republicans’, Romney said “We don’t know what the final vote tally is going to be, but congratulations to Rick Santorum, this has been a great victory for him and for his effort. He’s worked very hard in Iowa. We also feel this has been a great victory for us here. Ron Paul as well, Ron Paul’s had a great night,” to supporters at his Iowa headquarters. “All three of us will be campaigning very hard to make sure we restore the heart and soul of the entire nation.” Looking to his next challenge in frigid New England, Romney said “On to New Hampshire, let’s get that job done,” he closed. “Come visit us there, we’ve got some work ahead.”
Romney’s campaign staff was significantly smaller this time around than in 2008, when he spent millions of dollars to come in second to former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, losing by 9 percentage points. He then got 25 percent of the vote in Iowa.
As for Rick Santorum, it was “Game on” as he spoke to supporters after midnight on January 4. By nearly tying the well-financed and well-heeled Romney, Santorum gave the lie to doubters as to his credibility as a candidate. New Hampshire is another steep challenge for Santorum, where he has gotten only 5% in the most recent New Hampshire survey. He may find that his pro-life and pro-family principles are a hard sell in the Granite State. Keeping up his political momentum is key, according to President George W. Bush’s political advisor Karl Rove, speaking to questions about Santorum’s decision to campaign hard in New Hampshire rather than the more friendly South Carolina for now. Mike Huckabee used the same tactic in 2008, to his regret.