I'm not sure which overtime nail-biter was more riveting: Monday's Stanford-Oklahoma State thriller in the Fiesta Bowl, or Tuesday's crazy, razor-close Iowa Republican caucus. For Cardinal fans, the football game was certainly more heartbreaking. For supporters of all but two of the Republican candidates, Iowa was.
This kind of real human drama is what can make both politics and sports so compelling. Since primaries and caucuses became a regular feature of presidential campaigns, starting in Oregon in 1910 and really catching on for good in 1936, there simply has never been one like the Hawkeye Cauci we just witnessed. In the wee hours, CNN actually roused the two ladies in Clinton County whose sleepy, shaky vote tabulations, worked out live on the telephone, determined the outcome (and they immediately started trending on Twitter).
In case you went to bed before the final numbers came in, here they are:
Mitt Romney 25% (30,015 votes)
Rick Santorum 25% (30,007 votes)
Ron Paul 21%
Newt Gingrich 13%
Rick Perry 10%
Michele Bachmann 5%
Jon Huntsman 1%
Yes, folks, Romney won by eight votes. That is simply unprecedented in the history of American elections. Bush beating Gore by 537 votes in Florida in 2000? A veritable landslide. The Iowa result shatters the previous record for narrowest victory in a primary or caucus, held by South Dakota Governor Warren Green, who won his home state Republican primary in 1936 by 257 votes over Idaho Senator William Borah (they both lost the GOP nomination, though, to Alf Landon, who went on to crushing defeat at the hands of FDR).
The stunner here isn't just the closeness of this caucus, but which two Republicans came out on top. A month ago, this was a battle between Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul for the conservative soul of the Iowa GOP. Mitt Romney didn't intend to contest the caucus that intensely, not with social conservatives dominating the Iowa Republican Party and a sure victory awaiting him in New Hampshire. Rick Santorum was an asterisk in the polls. But with the collapse of first Herman Cain, then Michele Bachmann, then Rick Perry, Romney sensed an opening and began to pour resources into the state. Meanwhile, Santorum was plugging away, biding his time, staying true to himself and hoping the conservatives would eventually come to him. They did. Now both the Massachusetts moderate and the Pennsylvania conservative can lay claim to outperforming expectations and emerging from Iowa as the only true contenders for the nomination.
As I wrote Monday, Santorum is still a long shot, even with his out-of-nowhere surge in Iowa. Most American voters will react the way my wife did when she saw him on TV last night: "Rick who?" When they Google Santorum, the first thing they'll find will be the derogatory definition that's haunted him ever since his notorious comments about homosexuality in 2003. He has little money and no ground organization in the states ahead, most critically Florida. He'll get massive media attention now, and certainly an infusion of donations and volunteers, especially from those abandoning the Perry, Bachmann and Gingrich campaigns. He can consolidate the anti-Romney conservatives and present himself as the only viable alternative. He and Paul will gang up on Romney in this weekend's New Hampshire debates, while Gingrich spews venom at the frontrunner and becomes the bomb-throwing attack dog he swore he wouldn't be. But Santorum has to ramp up in a hurry, and while the party establishment rallies around Romney, the Pennsylvanian will feel the heat of Romney's Super PAC, which will educate Republican voters about some of his more extreme positions, arguing they make him unelectable in November, and he probably won't have the resources or campaign infrastructure to respond effectively.
Romney, in the meantime, is on the verge of becoming the only non-incumbent presidential candidate ever to sweep both the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. It just hasn't happened before, and it's likely to give him powerful momentum heading into the Southern states, where he has trailed Gingrich in the polls (Romney's 25% is the lowest in history for an Iowa caucus winner, but he benefits from a perfect storm: first, a fractured field of conservatives who split the Iowa right wing, leaving the moderates to him, and next, a primary state in which he happens to be a virtual favorite son, thanks to his vacation home there and his familiarity as governor of neighboring Massachusetts). Santorum will try to take Newt's spot at the top in South Carolina and Florida, but it'll be a tall order, especially in the less conservative Sunshine State.
None of this means Romney coasts from here. Ron Paul and his fanatic base will stick around for a while. The Iowa outcome underscores that conservatives just can't stomach the wishy-washy Romney, whom many see as a robotic opportunist. Voters are clearly moved by Santorum's sincerity, by his emotional, populist appeal, by his air of authenticity. He's a smart guy and a terrific campaigner. His "victory" speech last night (delivered while Romney was pulling ahead of him for good) may have been the best I've seen so far this campaign season. It was heartfelt and real, and if that's his introduction for many voters, it will serve him well. Meanwhile, Romney stumbled awkwardly through his basic stump speech, his laugh lines falling flat like some bad Catskills comedian. The contrast between the Teleprompted Romney and the off-the-cuff Santorum will be even more stark in the days ahead.
Romney needs to break through the 25% ceiling that's kept him from pulling away from the flawed field of conservatives trying to chase him down. Electability is his trump card, and he's banking that, outside Iowa, more Republican voters prioritize beating President Obama over sticking with their core convictions. It's a cynical calculation but I think it's a winning play for Romney. He'll also be helped by a return to the focus on jobs and the economy, which weren't the central issues in Iowa, where the economy is relatively strong. The argument that Romney is the turnaround artist the country needs will resonate much more in the states to come.
Whatever lies ahead, this campaign is off to a much more rousing start than anyone anticipated, and the fun, and drama, are just beginning.