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Romney Didn’t Win Iowa After All. Is It Too Late To Change the Story?

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Remember that narrow, 8-vote win Mitt Romney scored in the Iowa caucuses? The one that launched him on a 2-for-2 run in the first two GOP contests, building his momentum and underscoring his case as the inevitable nominee? Turns out it didn’t happen. The final certified count in Iowa shows that it was indeed a close race—but that Rick Santorum came out ahead by 34 votes.

The real winner, however, is still Mitt Romney—because for over two weeks he got the benefit of being described repeatedly in the media as the narrow “winner” of a caucus that journalists should have called a tie. And we’ll never know, but the difference it made may have been a hell of a lot more than a few votes.

To explain why, let’s back up. Going into Iowa, Romney was doing well—Newt Gingrich, seen as his most serious national threat, was on a downslide—but the direction of the race was by no means certain. He was still having trouble expanding his voter base, and Santorum was gaining fast in polls. To compound matters, Romney had predicted victory the weekend going into the caucus, a news story that most people have probably forgotten, but—horserace coverage being what it is—would have played much bigger had the headline the next morning been his narrow loss.

The morning after Iowa, the interpretation of the results was muddy, as the race was. Some analysts called the finish a relief for Romney, others a disappointing finish for Romney and a sign of strength for Santorum. Some initial news reports called the race essentially a tie—which is how it should have been described, because a result that close is well within the margin of error for an election of tens of thousands of votes. Indeed, within days, the result was in question, as a caucus participant charged that Romney was erroneously credited with 22 votes at a caucus site where he only got 2—which in itself would have been enough to swing the vote to Santorum.

But there’s no recount process in the Iowa caucus; Santorum, for whatever reason, chose to be happy with the result and not press the case that he might have won; and the press corps had to move on and cover New Hampshire the next week. And however careful the reporting the morning after, eventually—in the thousands of passing references to Iowa in the political news afterward—the story cemented: Mitt Romney had won an important, if razor-thin victory.

(All elections this size have a margin of error, by the way, and we’ll never know the precise, error-free vote total. The Iowa GOP reported in this case that eight precincts’ votes went missing. Theoretically they could have given Romney the margin—but probably not, as the New York Times’ Nate Silver notes, because Santorum handily led those caucus sites in the election-night counts.)

Romney was leading New Hampshire by a lot anyway, and he went on to win it. But might he have lost a few percentage points from the perception that he had been weakened after Iowa? Maybe. Maybe not. There’s no time machine, no alternate timeline we can visit. If he had lost a few points, though, suddenly we would have been looking at an entirely different narrative: Romney came up just short in Iowa, having gone all in with his campaign in the closing weeks. Then he underperformed in New Hampshire, a state next door to Massachusetts, which he should have won going away. Is he weakened?

Instead, we got the narrative that we did. After New Hampshire, we stopped hearing so much about how Romney won Iowa by 8 votes. We started hearing more about how he won the first two important contests of the primary. Over and over the statistic was repeated in passing: “No GOP candidate has ever won both states before… In short, Romney made history.” “Romney’s back-to-back-wins give him powerful momentum.” “No modern presidential candidate has ever won in Iowa and New Hampshire and failed to be crowned nominee.”

The thing about primaries is that what matters is not just what you win. It’s the order in which you win (or lose), and the trajectory that is implied. How you do, or are perceived to have done, in one state affects how you do in the next, and so on. And arguably, in this election, this narrative is more important to Romney than any of his opponents. His major argument as a candidate, besides business experience, is electability: that is, the assumption by voters that he can get other voters to support him. An electability argument can be powerful, but it can also evaporate quickly after a loss. As I wrote the morning after Iowa: “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.'”

Now, political journalists could only report the results that they had. As of that morning after, the Iowa GOP said Romney was up 8 votes, so he was. But you only need a memory that goes back to 2000—if that far—to know that elections are subject to human error, miscounts, papers getting lost and found. Eight votes was certainly a slim enough margin that follow-up reports on Iowa should have described it as a tie, or a virtual tie, period—especially once reports began coming in of a possible overcount for Romney.

I don’t see any bias here, in that there was any common desire among political reporters to credit Romney. (If anything, I’d have to think a primary junkie would want to see him weakened, simply for the prospect of a long primary battle, or, the holy grail, a brokered convention.) I do see a bias for a neat, short answer—a bias for the gist. Our system of political reporting doesn’t do well with nebulous results. It likes winners and losers, it likes to draw conclusions and go on to the next thing.

So it did: so Romney “won” Iowa—and thus New Hampshire, and maybe South Carolina Saturday—until, apparently, for all we know, he lost it (or at least didn’t win it). Too late, probably, for the actual result to make any difference.