Think You Know Who Won The Iowa Caucuses? Think Again

A recount in Iowa has changed the final numbers, but we really don't know who won.

When we last left the Iowa Caucuses, the results seemed to show Mitt Romney beating Rick Santorum by the razor thin margin of 8 votes. This morning, though, The Des Moines Register reports that the votes have been recounted and Rick Santorum is ahead by 34 votes:

It’s a tie for the ages.

There are too many holes in the certified totals from the Iowa caucuses to know for certain who won, but Rick Santorum wound up with a 34-vote advantage.

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.

GOP officials discovered inaccuracies in 131 precincts, although not all the changes affected the two leaders. Changes in one precinct alone shifted the vote by 50 — a margin greater than the certified tally.

The certified numbers: 29,839 for Santorum and 29,805 for Romney. The turnout: 121,503.

It’s not a surprise that the ultra-thin gap of eight votes on caucus night didn’t hold up, but it’s tough to swallow the fact that there will always be a question mark hanging over this race, politics insiders sa

At the very least, this changes the history of the 2012 Presidential race to some degree. Mitt Romney is no longer the first candidate who won the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire Primary since Gerald Ford, at least not officially. In fact, if you spin it in one direction you could say that Romney lost Iowa, and won the state he was supposed to win thus changing the dynamic of the race. That’s certainly how the other campaigns will try to spin it. The Santorum campaign will claim this is as a victory, and despite the fact that we cannot say for sure who won thanks to those eight missing precincts, perhaps he has the right to claim this narrow “victory.” The Romney campaign, meanwhile, is apparently already calling the results a “virtual tie” in press comments. The rest of the field will try to find a way to make this an argument against Romney’s inevitability.

I don’t think that any of it matters, frankly. We all knew on the night of January 3rd that the margin between Romney and Santorum was small and, frankly, both candidates had a right to claim some sort of victory regardless of which one of them actually had more votes. Heading into New Hampshire the next week, the question was whether Rick Santorum would be able to capitalize on his strong showing in the Hawkeye State. Very quickly, despite an earnest campaign on Santorum’s part the answer to this question was a clear an emphatic no, mostly because Santorum’s brand of social conservatism just wasn’t a good mix for the more independent minded conservatives of the Granite State. That, combined with the fact that Santorum’s campaign remained low on resources, meant that whatever momentum he got out of his surprise showing in Iowa pretty much petered out by the time the New Hampshire primary was over. Would things have been different had he been the one with slightly more votes in Iowa that night? Perhaps they would have, but the candidate would have remained the same and it seems unlikely that he would have done any better on January 10th than he actually did.

It also seems hard to believe that this news will have much of an impact on the race at this point. The momentum from Iowa simply doesn’t last that long and it cannot be revived. Campaigning across South Carolina with the line “hey I won Iowa by 34 votes” is unlikely to impress anyone at this point. So, Santorum will get to make a press statement today and the history books will reflect his narrow, narrow win over Mitt Romney, but that’s about all he’s going to get out of this point. To the extent any of the not-Romney’s have momentum at this point, it’s Newt Gingrich. Santorum, and Iowa are old news at this point. Furthermore, as I noted several times in the run up to Iowa, it’s worth noting that this news has absolutely no impact on what really matters in the race for the nomination, the delegate count. Iowa does not choose its delegates to the Republican National Convention until the state party convention in June. By that point, the nomination fight will be over and, just as it did in 2008, the Iowa Republican Party will send a slate of delegates committed to the presumptive nominee.

There’s one final point that goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. If this incident, and the truth about how Iowa actually allocates its delegates to the convention, aren’t reason enough to finally end the charade of Iowa being “first in the nation,” then I don’t know what is.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. datechguy says:

    It matters because of the narrative. It’s interesting to note that the “GOP officials” are calling it a “tie” but were not shy about calling 8 votes a win for Romney.

  2. @datechguy:

    Well it was the networks who talked about “wins” on the night of January 3rd not so much the Iowa GOP. As I noted at the time, Romney and Santorum both had cause to claim victory that night, and still do.

    As for the new numbers, with eight precincts missing and apparently unrecoverable I don’t think you can really say who actually won. Those eight precincts may have gone heavily for Romney for all we know and put him back over the top.

    Santorum did have a narrative going into New Hampshire. He utterly failed to capitalize it. I doubt things would have been any different if he’d been the one who was eight votes ahead on the night of January 3rd.

  3. This is not surprising. When the “win” by 8 votes was originally announced, some of the more math and science oriented blogs noted that it couldn’t be a “win” in a real sense. It was a statistical tie. It still is.

    Now, in elections with some end result, we do sort of pretend a statistical tie is a win for somebody, but that is probably an error. The Florida recounts were wrong. There should have been a new election.

    For the Caucuses .. not like it matters.

  4. (So the bottom line is that the political media should have been smart enough to report it as a statistical tie in the first place.)

  5. rodney dill says:

    Romney got more momentum (such as it is from Iowa), with the statistical tie, with him checked as the winner. With Santorum and Romney still in essentially in a tie, but Santorum checked as the winner its probably too late to get much momentum out of it for Santorum.

  6. Fiona says:

    It was always too close to call Romney the victor, not that he didn’t present himself as the winner anyway. Now, it’s non-news. Santorum isn’t going to be the nominee.

    If this incident, and the truth about how Iowa actually allocates its delegates to the convention, aren’t reason enough to finally end the charade of Iowa being “first in the nation,” then I don’t know what is.


  7. PJ says:

    This is about the inevitability of a Romney win. How would the reporting have changed if Romney instead had lost in Iowa (but being a close second), and then gone on to win in New Hampshire (which many consider to be bit of a home state for Romney)? What would his numbers in South Carolina have been?

    Romney’s surge in the polls is due to the results in Iowa and New Hampshire and the belief that him winning is inevitable.

  8. Vast Variety says:

    If this incident, and the truth about how Iowa actually allocates its delegates to the convention, aren’t reason enough to finally end the charade of Iowa being “first in the nation,” then I don’t know what is.

    If you come up with a better system maybe you can share it with the political parties that are responsible for Iowa and New Hampshire being first all of the time.

  9. @Vast Variety:

    As a matter of fact, I did propose an alternative that would be far better than the absurd spectacle of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida all fighting over who goes first every 4 or 8 years.

  10. Tsar Nicholas II says:

    Well, given that a material percentage of the zombiebots who participated in those caucuses had no idea for whom or for what they had voted (if you EEG’d them you’d get nearly flat lines), it’s quite apropos that the state doesn’t really know who prevailed. It’s a function of the lowest common denominator syndrome.

    As far as the nomination goes it’s an irrelevant and altogether moot point.

    When the contest began last summer Romney was the only legitimate candidate and was certain to be the nominee. When Perry entered the race for a brief moment there were two legitimate candidates. When Perry imploded it defaulted back to Romney. Santorum had and still has a greater chance of being named King of England than the nominee. Gingrich had and still has a better chance of being named the most popular guy in Congress. The rest of the field was and still is a collection of nuts, flakes and human mannequins.

  11. MBunge says:

    If you want to know how this happened, the Iowa GOP decided this time around to not let individual caucuses publicly announce their winners. That’s what used to happen and the result was that the AP and other news agencies would have stringers at each caucus site reporting in the vote totals, so there was essentially a double-check where the numbers were added up by the parties and by the media. If that system had still been in place, there’s virtually no way this mess could have occurred.

    This time around, however, all caucus results were supposed to be sent to the GOP headquarters in Des Moines and only announced from there. Well, such thirst for centralized authority is what produces fiascos like this. After the joke of Bachmann winning the Ames straw poll and now this, I don’t know how Iowa can even argue that it keep its first-in-the-nation status next time around.


  12. Vast Variety says:

    @Doug Mataconis: The only thing this incident proves is that the Iowa state GOP hasn’t got a clue how to manage and organize something as important as an election event; which to me tells me that this is yet another reason the GOP should never under any circumstances be allowed to govern… anything.

  13. Vast,

    What it actually proves is that caucuses are an incredibly dumb way to pick nominees

  14. @john personna:

    There should have been a new election.

    There’s no mechanism for calling a new election in the US. Maybe their should be, but allowing the government to call a new election on a whim just because it is unhappy with how the first one turned out is not good precedent to set.

  15. @Stormy Dragon:

    That’s really my point. If we were a math-and-science people we might set some level of uncertainty as “no result.”

    I think they theory behind our method though is that when votes are that close it doesn’t really matter. You could do a coin toss on close results … but close results already are a coin toss.

  16. @Doug Mataconis:

    The “close result” problem comes out of any voting system. cf. Florida.

  17. Eric says:

    Voter fraud?

  18. PJ says:

    No more ambiguity.

    Iowa GOP switches stance, declares Santorum winner


    The [Santorum] campaign is also pushing back against the Romney camp’s statement that the updated results are a “virtual tie,” despite declaring his own victory with a smaller unofficial margin.

    “He sounds like a kid who didn’t get what he wanted for his birthday so he smashed the cake,” Santorum adviser John Brabender told ABC News.

  19. DRS says:

    See, here’s the thing: Romney has been running for president since 2007, really. He didn’t grab the brass ring in 2008 – which in retrospect was a blessing in disguise – but he had experienced staff, advisors, cash, the status of second-but-first-in-line-for-next-time and the experience gained from having a dry run. And he still had only 25% support in his party all through last fall and got beaten in Iowa – barely, I grant you – by a guy a lot of Republicans think is a fruitcake.

    And this is strength? He should have stomped these loser rivals into the ground with all his advantages. Will this man have any coattails in the fall? Will Republican candidates be begging to have him stage rallies in their states because his presence will tip the balance? I can’t see it.

  20. Contra says:

    It seems someone tryied to get rid of 8 ballots with highly probable votes for Dr Ron Paul, and ended jeopardizing their own leader Mr Romney’s campaign.