Rick Santorum may have won Iowa, but does it even matter?

at 08:46 AM ET, 01/19/2012

Updated at 10:32 a.m.

It appears quite possible that Rick Santorum — not Mitt Romney — won the Iowa caucuses two weeks ago.

We’ll never know for sure due to incomplete official results, but according to the final results released today, Santorum has a 34-vote edge on Romney, casting doubt on the previous version of events that Romney won by eight votes and, at the very least, making the race a virtual tie.

But does it even matter?

In a word, yes. But there’s also little reason to believe it will recast the Republican presidential race in any major way.

While Romney’s campaign conceded the virtual tie Thursday morning, Santorum’s campaign immediately declared victory, seizing upon the result as proof of its momentum and Romney’s fallibility.

“We’ve had two early state contests with two winners, and the narrative that Gov. Romney and the media have been touting of ‘inevitability’ has been destroyed,” Santorum spokesman Hogan Gidley said.

But you can’t un-ring a bell.
Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum arrives at the USS Yorktown, in Mount Pleasant, S.C. on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Romney’s performance in Iowa has been cemented into the nation’s memory as a win, however narrow it was. And when you combine that with his win in New Hampshire, it has furthered the picture of Romney as the undefeated likely nominee.

With that perception have come money, establishment support and a lead in the polls in South Carolina.

None of those things are going to disappear if a couple dozen votes shift in Iowa, thereby moving the race in Santorum’s favor. Romney is still the favorite in both South Carolina and Florida, where he holds double-digit leads and could effectively end the GOP race.

True, Romney could no longer say he’s the first Republican in decades to win both of the two earliest states, but the reason winning is so important is because presidential campaigns are about momentum. And basically all the momentum from Iowa has already been used up; there’s not much for Santorum to salvage.

Indeed, Santorum seems resigned to that fact, suggesting earlier this week that a win in Iowa would have a small effect.

“What better time to get a little bump in winning Iowa?”he said Tuesday in an interview with Fox News.

But maybe a “little bump” could help.

What it could do is help Santorum to win the anti-Romney mantle. Santorum is currently fighting with Newt Gingrich for it, and if he’s got a win (or quasi-win) in Iowa, he could argue that he’s already beaten Romney in one state and could do it again.

Which is exactly what his campaign appears to be doing.

Beyond that, though, we wouldn’t expect a reversal of the Iowa result to be earth-shattering news. Especially in light of Rick Perry ending his campaign and ABC News releasing an interview with one of Newt Gingrich’s ex-wives today.

It may be an unwelcome distraction for Romney and a momentary bump for Santorum, but the structure of the race ahead has already taken shape, and Romney’s moral victory — even if it the actual victory goes by the wayside — has already served its purpose.

 
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