Oh, by the way, Mitt probably lost Iowa

The state GOP’s final count puts Rick Santorum on top by 34 votes, but with a giant, embarrassing asterisk

By Steve Kornacki
January 19, 2012 6:10PM (UTC)
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In this photo taken Thursday, Jan. 5, 2012, Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks in Salem, N.H. Conservative leaders are encouraging their brethren to rally behind Rick Santorum or perhaps another conservative to counter Mitt Romney’s rise in the presidential race. Virtually silent on the rollicking contest until now, these leaders of the GOP base burned up the phone lines and cyberspace Wednesday, energized by Santorum’s single-digit loss to the well-funded Romney in Iowa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke) (AP)

So, you know that oft-repeated line about how Mitt Romney is the first Republican presidential candidate of the modern era to win both Iowa and New Hampshire? It turns out it's not true. Well, it's probably not true -- but we'll never know for sure.

That's the upshot of the final certified count for the Iowa GOP caucuses, which gives Rick Santorum -- who fell eight votes short when the results were announced on caucus night -- a 34-vote edge over Romney, 29,839 to 29,805. But there's a catch:


Results from eight precincts are missing — any of which could hold an advantage for Mitt Romney — and will never be recovered and certified, Republican Party of Iowa officials told The Des Moines Register on Wednesday.

In other words, the Iowa Republican Party, which has been conducting caucuses that have served since 1980 as the critical opening test in the party's presidential nominating derby, did not have any mechanism in place to ensure a full and accurate vote count. Since caucus night, according to the Des Moines Register, revised tallies have been trickling in to the state party from precincts across the state. The deadline was the end of Wednesday. In some cases, embarrassing tabulation errors were discovered, and in other cases no forms were turned in at all. Thus, the state party is essentially throwing up its hands and declaring a tie. As chairman Matt Strawn told the Register:

“I can’t speculate without documentation from the missing eight,” Strawn said. “The comments I made at 1:30 a.m. Jan. 4 congratulating both Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum still apply. I don’t think the certified vote totals take anything away from either Governor Romney or Senator Santorum.”

The fiasco raises three immediate questions:

  1. Why listen to Iowa in the future? The caucus process has already been criticized for being unrepresentative -- turnout is much lower than it is in key early primary states -- and this is not the first time there have been problems with the vote count. There are some who still believe, for instance, that Ronald Reagan actually defeated George H.W. Bush in the '80 caucuses -- even though Bush was declared the surprise winner on caucus night, a result that gave him the "Big Mo" that made him a national player and helped win him a spot on Reagan's ticket in the fall, a role that ultimately positioned him to succeed Reagan as president in 1988. Given how much importance the political world places in Iowa's results, how much confidence will the national GOP and the media have in the state the next time around?
  2. Was Santorum robbed of "Big Mo" of his own? The headlines for Santorum coming out of the January 3 caucuses were certainly good -- even though he'd fallen eight votes short, conventional wisdom held, he'd still performed far better than anyone had expected until the very end of the Iowa race. But the (supposed) fact of Romney's victory drew plenty of attention too -- with the line about how he was poised to become the first-ever Republican to complete the one-two Iowa/New Hampshire punch dominating coverage for the next week. What if that hadn't been the story -- and instead the story had been Romney needing to win in the Granite State to avoid being shut out in the first two contests? It's true that Santorum, even with the burst of great press that he got, finished a very distant fourth in New Hampshire -- so maybe an official win in Iowa wouldn't have boosted him much there. But what about South Carolina, a state more tailored to his strengths? He seems stuck behind Newt Gingrich there, but would an Iowa victory have lifted him higher there?
  3. Could this still cause trouble for Romney? Say he ends up getting caught in South Carolina by Gingrich and loses in Saturday's primary. The story then could be that Romney -- who until now has seemed on the verge of going three-for-three in the lead-off tests -- has actually lost two of the first three contests. On the strength of his perceived wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, his poll numbers soared in other states and nationally, but the race remains volatile. If a new narrative takes hold -- that Mitt's grip isn't nearly as strong as we thought and that it may be slipping even more -- then what will that do to the lead in now enjoys in Florida, which will vote on January 31? And elsewhere? The saving grace for Mitt might be the Iowa GOP's refusal to declare Santorum the official winner because of the eight outstanding precincts, which will allow his campaign to say, "You can't say we lost Iowa because the real results will never be known and it could have gone either way."

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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