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Standing 8 Count: Romney Squeaker Tests the Media’s Math Skills

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Eight people in Iowa are the most important figures in American politics this morning, and I don’t mean the ones who are running for President. The eight folks who provided Mitt Romney’s margin of victory in the Iowa caucus—apparently in somewhere Clinton County (above)—may not have settled the Republican race, but they made for a late, suspenseful night in TV control rooms. Punch-drunk commentators stayed perched in cable-news studios last night like night owls at a Denny’s as the last few Iowa precincts trickled in, and this morning, reporters and analysts had to answer the question: what do we call this thing?

Does it matter that Romney won by eight votes rather than losing by the same margin? Of course not: it’s a tiny fraction of a tiny overall vote, in one state out of 50, in a caucus that does not even actually award delegates. Also: it totally matters—at least in terms of how it played in the media and the optics in voters’ living rooms.

Yes, the morning-after analysis is as muddled as the results, with the political press saying the primary fight could drag on and that the GOP is still deeply divided, even if Romney still looks best positioned to win. But had one slow-pitch softball team, minus the catcher, switched from Romney to Santorum, imagine the headlines this morning about how Romney fell this short after two tries in Iowa. And if your chief pitch to voters is that you’re the one who can win a general election, it makes a big difference to have your name in headlines and chyrons next to verbs like “win” and “beat.” That’s not to say Romney is in the clear this morning, though he made a triumphal, optimistic circuit of the network morning shows, but psychologically, that vote swing would have been a lot bigger than eight Iowans.

But before we got to this morning, there was a long, nervewracking night in which political bureaus had to throw up their hands and admit they would need to wait for the votes to be counted. In some cases, on their own air. Probably the most memorable moment of a slaphappy news night came in the wee hours on CNN, when a precinct official called in to go over her numbers with John King and his wondrous scribbleboard, when the vote was so tight that a few votes could throw the contest to Romney or Santorum. (At one point she seemed annoyed when King noted that the totals she reported didn’t square with the official figures CNN had received: “Whaddya mean the numbers don’t add up!”)

It was a great night for political drama junkies; at one point the margin narrowed to a single vote, flabbergasting anchors. But it also made for hours of spinning and premature conclusions, and way too many live shots of caucus officials collating paper. All the fancy graphics in the world couldn’t cover up the ad hoc nature of a developing vote-count story like this—at one point, Fox’s Bret Baier fumbled to figure out how to use his iPhone calculator to tally the margin. And sometimes, there weren’t even fancy graphics. Current TV had the political star power of its boss Al Gore—though oddly, not star anchor Keith Olbermann—but he was largely subdued on his own network as new host Cenk Uygur held forth, and the production showed that Current is still a bare-bones news operation. (The chief visual interest were big-screen TVs carrying other networks, so that Juan Williams seemed to be on Gore’s shoulder, talking into his ear.)

If uncertainty breeds engaging election news, then the night was a success. Not only did the results take hours, but the interpretation, from network to network, was all over the place: it was a big victory for Santorum, or he would not be able to capitalize; Romney did what he had to do, or he couldn’t close the deal with his party; Ron Paul scored big by his share of the vote from 2008, or he disappointed by not quite winning; there were only three tickets out of Iowa, or Newt Gingrich would manage to squeeze in on someone’s lap.

It was the kind of election night when Dan Rather and his close-vote Texan similes were sorely missed. But on CNN, Democratic analyst James Carville did manage to come up with my favorite new analogy for the GOP’s base’s reluctance to accept Romney: “It’s like trying to give a dog a pill. They keep spitting it out.” Plenty more doses yet to come, folks.