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Iowa Republicans To The GOP: Please Don't Ask Us Who Won

Iowa caucusgoers deposit their ballots on Jan. 3 at a school in Des Moines. On Thursday, the state GOP said it could not account for all votes from the caucuses.
Jewel Samad
Getty Images
Iowa caucusgoers deposit their ballots on Jan. 3 at a school in Des Moines. On Thursday, the state GOP said it could not account for all votes from the caucuses.

How embarrassing for Iowa GOP officials. How embarrassing for Iowa Republicans as a party. How embarrassing for Iowa.

But on the other hand, who told the world to hold its breath earlier this month, awaiting the latest word on who had edged ahead in the Iowa caucuses?

That would have been us. The news folks. Up all night to bring you the latest information — or misinformation, as it turns out.

And who told the world to care about these homey little midwinter Midwestern klatches in the first place?

That, too, would have been us.

So if we stare with incredulity at the latest "oops" from Des Moines, we have to wipe some egg off our own faces first. Having done so, we press on.

Iowa Republicans, after two weeks of trying to decide who won the caucuses they held earlier this month, announced Thursday that they simply could not tell.

At a news conference in Des Moines, we were told that Rick Santorum appeared to be 34 votes ahead, reversing the outcome that favored Mitt Romney on the morning after caucus night by eight votes.

It seems that eight of the precincts (out of 1,774) were not fully able to report on the preferences of those who showed up to participate on Jan. 3. Something happened to the records of who was for whom.

"Maybe a door was open and they just blew out," said one Republican in Des Moines, perhaps only half in jest.

You know how it goes. You have a few of your neighbors over on a winter night, everybody talks politics. Some are for this guy, some for that guy. Somebody calls for a vote and you collect all the little slips and you announce a tally. Then you move on.

And sure, later on, you go looking for the paper trail and some of it's gone. Lost under a doily on the divan or stuck to the bottom of a casserole dish on its way back to the kitchen. You know, things happen.

This is the risk inherent in the quaint and charming way Iowans conduct these caucuses every four years. To call it informal is to gussy it up. This is clubhouse stuff, far from the buzz and whir of a modern computer-driven vote-and-tally operation.

Paper ballots are counted at the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3 at a school in Des Moines, Iowa.
Jewel Samad / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
Paper ballots are counted at the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3 at a school in Des Moines, Iowa.

In past years there may well have been comparable shortfalls between caucus night and the end of the certification process. But no one cared, because the result wasn't close.

This is the sense in which the Iowa fiasco recalls the far more serious and damaging events that took place in Florida in November and December of 2000. In that case, millions of ballots were involved in a potential statewide recount that would determine the electoral vote of a Top Five state and thereby the winner of the Electoral College.

When Florida state officials decided against a recount and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld their decision (overruling a contrary ruling by the Florida Supreme Court), a razor-thin margin in Florida had overturned the popular vote result nationwide, and George W. Bush was the president-elect.

Compared with that tumultuous time, and all the consequences that followed, the confusion over this year's Iowa caucus results may seem a minor matter. It was clear on caucus night that Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, and Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, had each won about a fourth of the vote, while Texas Rep. Ron Paul had a little better than a fifth. The other candidates were trailing well behind.

But because so few votes separated the top two candidates, the fascination with that count occupied many reporters and news organizations well into the wee hours. The significant showing for Paul received far less attention.

Any serious analysis of the Iowa result had to start with Romney getting about what he got in the caucuses in 2008, with far less effort than he'd expended in the state four years ago. Second, it was clear Santorum had consolidated about three-fourths of the vote that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee had enjoyed in the 2008 caucuses, making him the favorite of the evangelical wing of the party — at least for the moment.

But Romney got more mileage out of the tie because he then won New Hampshire, enabling him to say he was the first non-incumbent Republican candidate for president ever to win both the first caucuses and the first primary. That added force to the inevitability argument at the center of his campaign pitch.

Losing the chance to say he won Iowa takes one of the arrows out of Romney's quiver. And it does so just as his campaign momentum is sputtering for other reasons related to his high income and low tax rate.

But all this raises the question of why we overcover Iowa and New Hampshire in the first place. And the answer, as ever, is that we, the political reporting claque, cannot resist anything that looks like a scoreboard. We are desperate for something metric, and we are desperate for early returns. It hardly matters how many or from where. Or how they are counted.

That sort of desperation is bound to get you in trouble, sooner or later.

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Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for