EDITOR'S NOTE: This commentary was written in the moments immediately following the Iowa Caucus results and prior to Michele Bachmann's suspension of her campaign.
The Iowa caucus finish was one of the tightest in American history. The squabble over the "winner" of the caucus may be a matter of insignificance but there were clearly winners and losers from the opening shot of the Republican primary. Here are the results for quick reference:
Mitt Romney - 24.6 % (6 delegates)
Rick Santorum - 24.5% (6 delegates)
Ron Paul - 21.4 % (6 delegates)
Newt Gingrich - 13.3% (4 delegates)
Rick Perry - 10.3% (3 delegates)
Michelle Bachmann - 5.0%
Jon Huntsman - 0.6%
So let's start with the losers...
The candidate with the largest bank account and national infrastructure to counter Mitt Romney is Rick Perry. But after blowing over $2 million in campaign cash for a disappointing 5th place finish and barely cracking double digits in the caucus, the Perry campaign is "reassessing" the situation. That's code for he's likely to drop out. The sad fact is that had he come out strong in the first few debates we would probably be calling him frontrunner right now and celebrating a dominating performance in Iowa. Instead he's circling the drain.
The signs were popping up in the polling prior to the caucus that things were not looking good. Tuesday night confirmed the suspicion and Bachmann is probably in the process of conceding as I type this post. Scoring a mere five percent in essentially a home state to start the primary season is a clear indication that your campaign is toast.
...for some it was a mixed bag...
For Ron Paul to be a "winner" he had to actually win. But even if he would have won, the Ron Paul joy ride would probably be short lived. On the flip side, finishing a strong third won't change his chances or his standing in the race much either. He has his niche and that's probably not going to change going forward. He should go on to finish a solid second place showing in New Hampshire before reality sets in that he doesn't stand a chance of winning the nomination.
Some of the pundits are calling him a big loser of the night but I'm not sure if that's entirely fair. The truth is that while his campaign has been bleeding out and merely a few weeks ago he was in position to take top honors in Iowa, the results could have been much worse. Two things in particular work in his favor: Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann. Perry posed the biggest threat to his standing in South Carolina and Bachmann would have been a problem had she finished at the top in place of Santorum. If he can stop the bleeding, he can snag a couple cheap delegates in New Hampshire, trounce the field in South Carolina, and head into the big winner-take-all primary in Florida with a delegate lead.
While he finished with less than 1%, noone expected any different. For him, his hope rests on a miracle in New Hampshire.
...and the winners!
If he didn't have a strong showing, his campaign was toast. Santorum went all in and came out tied for the delegate lead. His campaign still has an uphill climb. He's relatively untested and unknown during this process. His campaign is gaining cash but is still dwarfed in comparison to Romney or Perry. His hope rests in separating himself as the conservative alternative and satisfying southerners who may be skeptical of a northern politician. Iowa gives Santorum life. Now he needs to break 10% in New Hampshire and win over South Carolina voters where he has never polled higher than 4%.
Had he finished third, it wouldn't change his standing much, but finishing with the most votes helps solidify the case that he's the one for Republicans to rally around. Another dominating performance in New Hampshire will help make that case. The real challenge for him will be Florida. If he wins there as well he stands with a considerable lead over the rest of the field. If the field narrows to a two person race he could still face a challenge but with a strong delegate lead the case for Romney may be insurmountable.