Santorum comes 8 votes short, declares: ‘Game on’

It was easy to imagine Mitt Romney winning the Iowa caucuses. It was harder to imagine Romney winning Iowa and looking weaker at the same time.

And yet, that seems to be a fairly reasonable assessment of the race for the Republican presidential nomination this morning. As of about 2:30 a.m. eastern, the official results were released, and Romney eked out an eight-vote win over Rick Santorum, 30,015 to 30,007 — a difference of about one-tenth of one percent* — in the closest Iowa caucus ever.

Romney staffers and supporters were quick to say, “A win is a win.” There’s clearly some truth to that; Romney fought hard to come out on top in Iowa and he (just barely) succeeded. But in sports, when folks say “a win is a win,” they’re generally talking about a contest in which the victor won an ugly fight and the winner doesn’t look all that impressive afterwards.

In this case, that clearly applies to Romney. Consider this brief timeline of events:

2007: Romney runs aggressively in Iowa, invests millions, and expects to win.

2008: Romney ends up with 25.2% of the vote in a six-candidate field.

2009: Romney launches a four-year presidential campaign.

2011: Romney runs aggressively in Iowa, invests millions, and expects to win.

2012: Romney ends up with 24.5% of the vote in a six-candidate field.

Yes, the votes were tallied and the former one-term governor gets the bragging rights, but therein lies the point: there’s not much for Romney to boast about here. After five years of near-constant campaigning, Romney managed to get fewer votes in Iowa last night than he did in his first campaign. He also picked up the dubious honor of the weakest win in the history of the caucuses — no victor has ever managed to finish first with less than 25% of the vote until last night.

After spending nearly $4.7 million, most of it towards the very end of the contest, these are not results Romney should be proud of.

Santorum, meanwhile, comes out of the Hawkeye State with a long-sought title: the anti-Romney. Whereas Romney’s trajectory is underwhelming and reinforces doubts about his limited appeal, the former Pennsylvania senator closed stronger than anyone thought possible, and leaves Iowa with undeniable momentum, and a compelling pitch to GOP voters who don’t want to vote for a dishonest flip-flopper who only discovered his right-wing beliefs when pollsters told him it would advance his ambitions.

As John Dickerson put it:

Though the top two candidates tied, Santorum was the big winner. Weeks ago, the smart people thought that tonight he’d be addressing an empty ballroom of lonely, sad balloons. Instead, the crowd at his victory party is so thick I’ve practically got supporters on my lap as I type this. Santorum is now the only Flavor of the Week candidate to actually win anything, which makes him a genuine threat to Romney, at least for the moment.

When Santorum declared to his packed ballroom, “Game on!” it set the stage for a two-person contest going forward.

The smart money still says Romney is the frontrunner for the nomination, though largely by default. That said, much like the 1992 New Hampshire primaries, it’s the second-place finisher with the widest smile.

* Update: To clarify, reader N.L. reminds me that many media outlets are showing the difference as 0.1%, but that’s misleading. It’s actually closer to 0.007%.