As the American presidential candidates enter the final period of intense campaigning before the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, the close results of the Iowa caucus frame the commentary. Newspapers and pundits have focused exclusively on how close the Iowa results were, suggesting Mitt Romney has a real fight on his hands to win the nomination.
Rubbish, and I'll tell you why.
It's true that the results in Iowa represented one of the closest margins in electoral history. Romney won by only 8 votes, achieving 24.6% of the vote versus 24.5% for Rick Santorum. It was effectively a tie.
But Iowa caucus-goers are not only dramatically unrepresentative of the country as a whole, they are quite different from Republican primary voters as well.
Just 147,255 voted in the Iowa primary on Tuesday. That's the size of a small city in the U.S. It has been estimated that around 99% of GOP caucus-goers in Iowa are white and just over 50% call themselves evangelical or born again Christians, while close to 70% describe themselves as from a "small city or rural". They bear little resemblance even to east coast Republican primary voters.
Yet, this small and rare group of Americans is responsible for creating a hugely influential perception about the viability of presidential candidates and the momentum behind their campaigns. For that reason their opinion does matter, and the caucus result is important.
However, the real question we should be asking ourselves is how did a moderate Northeast Republican Mormon who spent little time in the state, had just five paid staff and a few dozen volunteers there, pull off this result over more conservative candidates?
My answer is that, contrary to the media commentary following the Iowa caucus, Romney's narrow victory among the country's most conservative voters is a sign of the massive strength of his candidacy and campaign.
And my prediction is that the results of the New Hampshire primary this coming Tuesday will bear this out.
Results from a Suffolk University/ 7News poll released this week showed Mitt Romney at 43%. A landslide in New Hampshire doesn't mean the rest of the campaign will be plain sailing, but I think it does mean the beginning of the end for Santorum's short-lived surge.
So was Iowa just a fluke for propelling Santorum to the front of the pack? Well, I'd say, no. He spent many weeks in the state, meeting individually with thousands of people. As a very conservative candidate, Iowa is a place he should excel.
Then again, in the run up to the vote, he also benefitted from a crowded field of candidates that diluted attention from many of his controversial opinions. He can't coast on those advantages anymore. You better believe his record and right-wing positions will be the focus of a new crop of attack ads from both sides of the political spectrum. Plus he just doesn't have the national campaign organisation to compete with Romney over the long term, no matter how many tea party activists love him.
So onward to New Hampshire. Romney should be confident, but will no doubt be watching his back to see who will emerge as the next challenge for second place. Stay tuned.
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