DES MOINES, Iowa — It was a dogfight that came down to a razor-slim margin of votes Tuesday night (January 3) between former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Senator Rick Santorum.
Romney came out on top after running in a tie with Santorum at 25 percent of the vote for much of the night, winning the Iowa caucus by only eight votes with north of 122,000 voters turning out. In addition, the third-place finish by libertarian rabble-rouser Representative Ron Paul with 21 percent of the vote proved the power of the youth vote in this year's election.
The mainstream media had been virtually ignoring Paul for months as they focused on the reality-show-like rise and fall of other Republicans vying for the GOP presidential nomination. But on Tuesday, the congressman from Texas shocked naysayers when he came in third place in the all-important Iowa caucus, the first primary contest of the season. CNN reported that entrance polls showed Paul's strongest support came from voters ages 17-29, while Romney was the pick for voters 65 and older and Santorum clicked with those 45-64.
In his concession speech, Paul thanked his enthusiastic supporters for believing in him and reintroducing what he described as a core Republican value: "the conviction that freedom is popular."
"Once again, we have had a fantastic showing for this cause and not the status quo we have been putting up with for decades and decades," he said to lusty applause. "This movement is going to continue, and we are going to keep scoring just as we are tonight."
The major story of the night, though, was the battle longtime poll leader Romney was drawn into with classic conservative Santorum, who had been polling in the single digits for much of the year but got a sudden burst of support late in the pre-caucus cycle in Iowa. Romney, who spent more than $10 million in 2009 to win Iowa, only to lose to former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, didn't spend as much this time around but ended up in the closest Iowa caucus in history.
Romney addressed his supporters before he was named winner of the unbelievably close race. "This is a campaign night where America wins. We're going to win the White House and get America back on track," he said as he reiterated many of his stump talking points about what he said were President Obama's failures on security issues (Iran) and the economy (continuing high unemployment, record deficits).
Promising to dismantle the so-called ObamaCare health plan, Romney said this election is about the soul of America, once again reciting his favorite lines from "American the Beautiful," as he's done often on the stage. "I want to restore the principles that made America the hope of the earth," he said, professing his love for freedom, the constitution and the country.
With 25 delegates at stake and Iowa no longer a winner-takes-all state, Romney earned bragging rights, but not the kind that would come with a convincing, large-margin victory. If anything, pundits said that Santorum came out the champion by simply having such a strong showing.
Just moments after voting wrapped up at Olmstead Hall on the campus of Des Moines' Drake University, Katherine Rupp — who was undecided going in — was happy that Romney came out on top in her precinct after the night's vote. "Romney has a business background, and I believe he'll bring his CEO experience to hopefully being our Republican presidential candidate," she said.
Rupp said the unique nature of the Iowa caucuses — where Iowans get up onstage to give their personal pitch for why their friends, neighbors and fellow precinct dwellers should vote for a particular candidate — played a big part in swaying her from the undecided column into the Romney camp.
Ricki Meyer was a Santorum supporter going into the night, and while her candidate came in a tie for second with Paul at the Drake caucus, she was feeling bullish about the former senator's prospects and vowed to keep supporting him as he marches forward. "The things I believe in line up so well with what he believes in, and if I don't stand up for that and for him right now, I don't want to look back on this election and how pivotal it is for our country and think, 'Why didn't I support that guy anymore?' " she said.
Santorum addressed Meyer and his other followers even before the results were in Tuesday night. "People have asked me how I've done this sitting back in the polls ... I survived the challenges so far by the daily grace that comes from God," he said. "You have taken the first step of taking back this country," he told the people of Iowa, who he met while visiting all 99 counties, and likely winning over the state's all-important Evangelical voters.
"The essential issue in this race is freedom. Whether we will be a country that believes that government can do things for us better than we can do for ourselves," he added in an address that sounded more like his standard stump speech than a victory celebration for a candidate who most thought would never make it this far. "We are off to New Hampshire."
Benjamin Levine, 20, a Drake student and ROTC member, was inspired enough by Paul's message to get up during the caucus and speak out on behalf of his candidate, with no notes, because the congressman's message resonates that clearly in his mind. After volunteering for the campaign for several months, and after Paul's third-place finish in the Drake caucus, Levine said the fight was not over.
Larger precinct 46 went for Romney at the Drake vote, but Levine's precinct 45 went to Paul in a tight one, and he was pleased with the result. Though Tuesday was his birthday, Levine said the Paul win in his precinct was the bigger deal. "I don't feel any older, but I can feel maybe a little more freedom coming," he said as he prepared to go to a Youth for Paul watching party downtown. "Mitt Romney is the establishment guy. He ran four years ago. He has name recognition. It's huge that Paul can even get second in that precinct because people said he's unelectable, they made up all those lies ... even a second place in this precinct is pretty good."
Though final results would take several more hours, Levine said even if Paul did not end up snagging second statewide, "It's certainly not the end of the road."
As for the rest of the field, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich came in fourth (13 percent), followed by Texas Governor Rick Perry (10 percent), who signaled he might soon drop out, then Representative Michele Bachmann (5 percent) and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman (1 percent), who didn't really campaign in Iowa at all. The remaining candidates now move on to New Hampshire, which will hold its primary next Tuesday.
MTV is on the scene in Iowa! Head to Iowa.MTV.com for all our Iowa caucus coverage, and stick with PowerOf12.org throughout the presidential election season to follow Andrew Jenks on the campaign trail.