Santorum won Iowa after all

As if we needed another reason to question why Iowa is always allowed to go first, it turns out Republicans in the Hawkeye State didn’t quite get the results of their caucuses right the first time.

There are too many holes in the certified totals from the Iowa caucuses to know for certain who won, but Rick Santorum wound up with a 34-vote advantage.

Results from eight precincts are missing — any of which could hold an advantage for Mitt Romney — and will never be recovered and certified, Republican Party of Iowa officials told The Des Moines Register on Wednesday.

GOP officials discovered inaccuracies in 131 precincts, although not all the changes affected the two leaders. Changes in one precinct alone shifted the vote by 50 — a margin greater than the certified tally.

The certified numbers: 29,839 for Santorum and 29,805 for Romney. The turnout: 121,503.

How, exactly, does Iowa maintain a system in which results from eight precincts simply vanish? I don’t know, but I hope folks will keep this in mind the next time state officials insist they’ve earned the right to go first until the end of time.

As for the results, I can appreciate why this seems irrelevant. Whether one candidate won Iowa by a fraction of a fraction of a point or another won by a similar margin probably seems trivial.

But there’s a larger context to this. When the Iowa GOP said Romney had won by eight points, he enjoyed the benefits that came with victory. After five years of non-stop campaigning, Romney guaranteed success in Iowa before the caucuses, and then eked out a win when the votes were tallied. The former governor’s campaign, a week later, took great pride in boasting about becoming the first non-incumbent Republican to win Iowa and New Hampshire in the same cycle.

We now have reason to believe, however, that Romney didn’t win Iowa at all — and he came up short to a guy who was dismissed as an afterthought just a few weeks before the caucuses.

In a statement this morning, the frontrunner said, “The results from Iowa caucus night revealed a virtual tie.” That’s a nice spin, but there’s a problem with it: Romney can’t have it both ways. When preliminary results show him with an eight-vote edge, Romney insisted this was a “victory.” When a more complete tally shows Rick Santorum with a 34-vote edge, Romney thinks that’s a “virtual tie.”

Both assessments can’t be right. If the new results point to a tie, then the old results didn’t point to a win.

And if Newt Gingrich wins South Carolina, we’ll have quite an interesting lineup of results: three different contests with three different winners.

In my heart of hearts, I still believe Romney will be the last candidate standing, and will win the Republican nomination, the Iowa results notwithstanding. That said, I also believe fair is fair — the best available information tells us Santorum, not Romney, was the winner in Iowa, whether it makes any difference in his campaign or not.