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The Iowa Caucus' Real Results: Hardly Anybody Voted, And Nobody Won Anything

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So, with the Iowa caucuses in the books, our attention turns to the matter of who "won" last night. Technically, the "winner" is Mitt Romney, who eked out a plurality of the votes cast, by an eight-vote margin. But, as many are noting, Rick Santorum was perhaps the biggest "winner," relatively speaking, because his bare-bones, on-the-cheap retail operation came within a hair of besting the big-spending, Super-PAC enabled Romney. And of course, Ron Paul, who doubled up his 2008 total but only managed a third place finish, was nevertheless acting like a winner last night as well.

And yet, this was an election that was decided by a teensy fraction of the available humans in Iowa who could come around and cast a vote last night. This year's Iowa Caucus is being billed as one of the best ever -- a record turnout, in fact. But if last night was a record turnout, then the Iowa caucuses are some sort of "tallest hobbit" contest.

The numbers tell the story: of the 2,250,423 voters in the state (using the higher voting-eligible population), only 147,255 came out last night. And of those, only 122,255 voted in the Republican contest, for a turnout percentage of 5.4 percent. And if any of the hype about Democrats, Occupiers, Anarchists, interlopers, and stray ACORN activists (those that haven't been secreted off to Bagram Air Force Base for indefinite detention) -- all voting on the GOP side to gum up the works -- is true, it's possible that there was an even smaller percentage of sincere GOP voters.

And former Massachusetts Gov. Romney won by 8 votes, a percentage of the voting population that even Wolfram Alpha cannot calculate into a percentage that my mathematically-challenged mind can handle.

So, it's a good thing we made such a big deal about last night's events, right?

But if the true winner of the Iowa Caucus only seems uncertain for those reasons, then you don't know the half of it. See, the real winner of last night's caucuses is really revealed by the number of delegates that were awarded to each candidate. And as it stands right now, everyone is technically in a three-way tie, with zero delegates for everyone.

This is not to say that various experts haven't weighed in with various projections. According to our Associated Press-enabled sidebar, Romney is projected to take seven delegates, and former Sen. Santorum (R-Pa.) six. But Iowa doles out 28 in total. Where do the remaining delegates go? Well, depending on whose projection you're seeing, they could be going in many directions. Last night, a CNN chyron suggested that Romney and Santorum would split the lion's share of the delegates between them, leaving Rep. Paul (R-Texas) with a token three or four. But Larry Sabato predicts that when all is said and done, it will look more like an even split, by thirds, among Romney, Santorum, and Paul.

Over at The Green Papers, where these matters have been covered since the beginning of time (and whose creators have steadfastly refused to bring their site design out of the mid 1990s), they suggest an even wider split, with Romney, Santorum and Paul taking six delegates each, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich snagging four, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry pulling three. The remaining three delegates, rounding out the 28, are the "the National Committeeman, the National Committeewoman, and the chairman of the Iowa's Republican Party," who "will attend the convention as unpledged delegates by virtue of their position."

Right about now, you may be asking, "Wait, 'attend the convention?'" Yes. This is where we really get deep into the part of the Iowa delegate selection and distribution process that's not sexy enough to be covered on television.

While what we witnessed last night, with all the voters meeting in gymnasia and writing their votes on slips of paper to be counted by party officials, is billed as "The Iowa Caucus" and disseminated to the viewing public with patriotic fanfare, it was actually just step one of a long process (that will last until June), known as the precinct caucuses. The delegates from these caucuses will go to 99 county conventions in March, where delegates will be elected to attend Iowa's Congressional District Conventions and the State Convention.

The Congressional District Conventions are in April, and, per The Green Papers, "the sole business -- insofar as the presidential campaign is concerned -- of the District Convention is that of instructing the delegates to the Iowa State Republican Convention from the counties making up said congressional district as to the presidential contender most preferred by the delegates in attendance at the District Convention."

Finally, on June 16, Iowa's State Republican Convention is convened, and the 25 delegates to the Republican National Convention are elected. (Again, The Green Papers details the arcane process through which all of the various delegates get selected.)

Now, as Chris Good points out, we probably will be able to put this entire ornate process on fade if we get one or two solid contenders to emerge out of the early state primaries:

All this will be moot if a front-runner sprints ahead of his competition in the next two months. But we’ll have to revisit the Iowa outcome, in a delegate-counting context, if the GOP race progresses into a dragged-out trench war.

GOP presidential candidates may find themselves tussling over delegates deep into the spring as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton did in 2008, if Republican Party officials have their way. New party rules, adopted in June to mimic the Democratic system that prolonged the 2008 Obama-Clinton battle, have prodded most states to allocate national-convention delegates proportionally, in some form or another, placing a higher priority on organizing across the country and potentially meaning a longer journey to the nomination.

[...]

If the 2012 primary becomes a race for delegates, Tuesday night’s vote will mean less, and winning Iowa could come down to organizing at and before those conventions in June. If the race is still competitive as June draws near, Iowa GOP officials will start to talk more about the votes for delegates.

So, the reason you won't hear much talk about the delegates that Gingrich and Perry might be eligible for is because neither candidate is expected to remain in the race long enough for it to really matter. But the guy who might stick around is Paul, and, as many are pointing out today, his long-view of the caucus process is part of his overall plan to persist in the race. As Paul's senior campaign advisor Dan Godzich told Business Insider's Grace Wyler: "Part of what we've been training the Ron Paul people to do is not to leave after the vote ... Stay and get elected to the conventions and get us those delegates."

Josh Putnam, who cranks out solid intel on the primary process on the daily over at FrontloadingHQ, delves deeper into Paul's strategy:

First of all, the Paul folks are VERY organized. FHQ has something of an inside view of this. For months now, FHQ's 2012 presidential primary calendar has been used by at least two or three Ron Paul sites in either efforts to get the word out about when the various states are actually holding votes or in lengthy tutorials on how to become a delegate. These folks -- whether directly coordinating with the Paul campaign or not -- know the rules and are focused on what I call the back end of the process; the selection of actual delegates (not the binding of them).

Secondly, the business casual orders that came down the line within the Paul campaign to its young volunteers in Iowa hints at something bigger. The campaign, in other words, wants to appear to and actually be a part of an orderly delegate selection process, but a part that gets more Paul supporters a step further in the process in 2012 versus 2008. To the convention in Tampa.

[...]

We could conceivably, then, end up with an unknown but fairly sizable number of Paul delegates pledged to Romney or some other candidate in Tampa based on the rules in the various states. Romney in that scenario wins the nomination but the Paul folks become increasingly likely to hold some sway over some planks in the platform. [And just because, I'll add this: They may also influence the nomination rules for 2016.]

But let's not get too bogged down in Paul's endgame, which has a steeper hill to climb with a third-place finish than it would if he'd won last night's vote count outright. And let's leave off some of the Santorum hype for the moment as well -- Romney will enjoy a run of favorable state contests in Nevada, Colorado, and Michigan that might firmly establish his inevitability no matter how things go in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida.

The point is that you should take all talk of "winning" and "losing" with several grains of process. And more importantly, while Iowa's divine-right to being the first contest in the primary season is often criticized for having an outsized influence over the rest of the selection process, the truth is that the later primaries actually greatly influence who ultimately reaps Iowa's rewards -- which don't amount to very much.

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