What the Freakishly Gripping Iowa Caucuses Mean for Gingrich, Santorum, Paul, and Romney

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Photo: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images, Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images, Andrew Burton/Getty Images, Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

From the start, the 2012 Republican contest in Iowa was extraordinary in every way: volatile, unpredictable, and odd, embracing and then discarding front-runners — Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich — as if they were so many disposable razors. And so perhaps the fact that the caucuses unfolded in a way that was extraordinarily gripping and ended with a freakishly close photo finish should not have come as a surprise. But still! Holy shit! What a way to get this rumble started!

Whether or not you stayed up, bleary-eyed, as Impolitic did, until the wee hours of the morning, you're probably aware by now that Mitt Romney eked out a win over Rick Santorum by the nearly barest margin imaginable — a trifling 8 votes out of 122,225 cast. The main takeaways were clear enough: The Santorum surge turned out to be real, and so was the Gingrich collapse; Team Romney's exuberant sense of confidence proved to be excessive, and so did that of the Paulistas. Less obvious were the broader implications of the caucuses, but they are large indeed.

Let's begin, perhaps a bit perversely, with Ron Paul. The geriatric, ultra-libertarian berserker was thought as recently as two weeks ago to be in a plausible position to win the caucuses outright. Instead, Paul finished third. And though the candidate seemed chuffed when he addressed his supporters last night, and though his people called their man's finish "a great victory" and claimed to be celebrating it, what took place in Iowa — a state unusually and maybe uniquely well-suited to his candidacy — was that the ceiling on Paul's support was essentially established at 21 percent.

True enough, that was more that double the proportion he carried here in 2008. True enough, he finished two places higher than he did then. But for Paul to be a credible Republican nominee, he needed to prove his capability to expand his base of support to traditional GOP voters, and that he definitively did not do; his support came mainly from independent and even liberal caucusgoers, and also far-right anti-government crusaders. To be sure, Paul isn't going anywhere. He may prove to be this year's version of Jerry Brown in 1992, hanging in there to the end, accumulating delegates, tormenting the eventual nominee all way to the Republican convention (and possibly even beyond that, should he launch a third-party bid). But what Iowa demonstrated unambiguously is that Paul will not be the Party's standard-bearer in the fall.

Next, let's consider the fates of Iowa's two biggest losers, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, who finished fifth with 10 percent of the vote and sixth with 5 percent, respectively. In his concession speech, Perry made news by announcing his intent to cancel his scheduled campaign events in South Carolina today and return to Texas to reassess his campaign's status — which is to say, almost certainly, drop out. For her part, Bachmann played coyer, but perhaps not for long: She has a press conference scheduled for 11 am ET this morning. Regardless of what she says, her fate is now sealed.

The macro meaning of Perry's and Bachmann's impending departures is that Iowa has once again served its function of winnowing the field. There are now just two viable traditional conservative candidates remaining in the race, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. And on the micro level, for reasons that I'll explain below, that is bad news for Mitt Romney.

It was not a good night for Gingrich in most respects. Having garnered just 13 percent of the vote and a fourth-place finish, the former Speaker of the House leaves Iowa bruised and battered, angry and aggrieved — but not dead yet. His concession speech was a remarkable thing, compelling and dour, at times almost apocalyptic, delivered with a scowling countenance and filled with ominous portent. If there were any doubt that Gingrich intends to attempt to tear Romney limb from limb, it was removed by the former's attacks on the latter as "a Massachusetts moderate who, in fact, is pretty good at managing the decay" of America.

Gingrich also congratulated and spoke warmly of Santorum, which some analysts read as a tacit endorsement of him. But I think that interpretation overstates the case and misunderstands what Gingrich is thinking — which, I suspect, is that he still has a chance to emerge ultimately as the Republican nominee. As Time's Mark Halperin tweeted late last night, "Newt scenario: bats Mitt in NH debates, drives econ msg, runs good ads, nicks Mitt in NH, romps in SC, Mitt makes error(s), [Newt] edges in FL." You might argue that this scenario is farfetched, which is fair enough. But I'd counter that the Romney campaign is more worried about it coming to pass than in losing the nomination to Santorum.

The former Pennsylvania senator was, of course, the big winner of the night. The rise of Santorum from single digits just two weeks ago to achieve a virtual tie with the national front-runner was a startling, and in some ways inspiring, development. In a contest where Romney and the super-PACs supporting him spent more than $10 million, Santorum nearly equaled him with an outlay of just a half a million bucks.

With the eyes of the world on him for the first time in his life, he delivered the most important speech of his political career with poise and heart and no small amount of political savvy. (When Santorum spoke of his blue-collar roots and his immigrant grandfather, who fled fascist Italy to work in the coal mines of southwest Pennsylvania, the contrast with Romney's lineage — his great-grandfather a famous polygamist who fled to Mexico to escape his home country's laws and his father a wealthy industrialist — could not have been clearer or more pointed, no matter how implicit.)

Santorum will now receive an incalculable boost in free-media attention and a welcome influx of cash. In New Hampshire, his populist economics and ardent social conservatism may prove a potent mix; note well that his campaign manager there cut his political teeth in 1996 working on Pat Buchanan's victorious effort in the state. And in South Carolina, the likely absence of Perry and the vindictive (towards Romney) presence of Gingrich may help Santorum consolidate the conservative, anti-Mitt vote there. But Santorum also faces considerable challenges, from putting together organizations in South Carolina and Florida to withstanding the sudden onslaught of scrutiny by and criticism from the press and his rivals that his previous runt-of-the-litter status in the race allowed him heretofore to avoid.

Santorum is in uncharted territory, and his ability to navigate it successfully is anything but certain.

For Romney, on the other hand, what lies ahead is terra familiar, and that is a huge advantage — as are his enormous financial and organizational resources. But Romney will not get the lift out of Iowa that his team was clearly hoping for and expecting, especially in the closing days of the Iowa campaign, when many of his staff were suffused with self-assurance that bordered on bravura. Yes, it is true that a win is a win, whether by eight votes or eight hundred or eight thousand. Yes, Romney spent most of the year not actively campaigning in Iowa and his team did a nice job (until those closing days) of building a sub rosa organization while tamping down expectations. And yes, Romneyworld ended up with the conservative alternative they would have chosen had they been empowered to do so — i.e., Santorum — and either killed off or crippled the two hard-right challengers — Perry and Gingrich — whom they considered far greater threats.

But Romney's showing in Iowa was, in the end and seen in the proper perspective, hardly impressive: He won essentially the same number of votes and the same proportion of the vote that he did four years ago, when he was an unknown commodity and not the de facto national front-runner. Now he proceeds to New Hampshire, where the quasi-home-state status that he enjoys owing to his home on Lake Winnipesaukee and his tenure as the governor of a neighboring state have burdened him with sky-high expectations of a decisive victory. And there he will face not just an ascendant Santorum but also Jon Huntsman, who has basically been living in the Granite State for months and has bet his entire candidacy on taking out Romney there. In South Carolina, always Romney's weakest state among the early contests, he will not confront the circumstances that his advisers were praying for — another fractured and fragmented conservative field — but one where anti-Romney consolidation is an increasingly likely prospect.

All of which is to say that, after Iowa, Romney still remains the most likely Republican nominee. But the outcome last night has made things a damn sight more interesting than most people expected them to be. And if anything can be said about Willard Mitt, it is that any situation that can be described as "interesting" is not his friend.