In the wake of the Iowa caucuses, what matters now is not the exact order of Romney, Santorum, and Paul; the numbers are very close. What does matter is the range between the candidates. Iowa gives us basically a tie between Romney and Santorum, with both at around 25%. Ron Paul comes out a strong third at around 21%. Gingrich, Perry, Bachmann, and Huntsman, who did not even campaign in Iowa, fall far behind.
Romney did not sew up the nomination tonight, but he took a significant step down the road to the nomination. A few months ago, Romney was polling in the high teens and low twenties in Iowa. Since July, he has had relatively few days where he was in the lead. So a tie today is a not-insignificant accomplishment. It is, however, a limited one: he still remains under 26%. A big win in New Hampshire would be helpful for Romney in breaking the Romney-ceiling narrative. And Romney's people shouldn't be too depressed about the fact that Romney performed at about the same level in 2008 in Iowa: Reagan lost the Iowa caucuses to Ford in 1976 and lost them again to George HW Bush in 1980---he couldn't get above 30% in 1980. Somehow, Reagan still won the nomination, and the presidency, in 1980.
This is a hard night for Rick Perry. He spent more than any other candidate in Iowa and is stuck in fifth place. With Perry's declaration that he is going back to Texas to re-access his path to the nomination, his campaign is in critical condition. Newt Gingrich can't be too happy, either. A few weeks after boasting that he would be the nominee, he is stuck with a disappointing fourth-place showing. Moreover, the path to the nomination for Michele Bachmann now seems almost totally closed down.
Independents were responsible for Ron Paul's performance tonight. Among Republicans, the entrance poll reports the following: 28% Santorum, 27% Romney, and 14% Paul. Among independents, however, the numbers were 44% Paul, 18% Romney, and 13% Santorum. The "independent" number shows a big increase from the 2008 Republican caucuses; with the Democratic caucuses uncontested this year, many Democratic-leaners may have come out for Paul. Due to a number of reasons, it seems quite clear that many Democrats would love to run against Paul.
And, of course, this was a very good night for Rick Santorum. The outstanding question is whether Iowa is a one-off or a route to the nomination. For George W. Bush, it was the latter. For Mike Huckabee, it was the former. Look to see whether Rick Santorum's numbers rise in national polling over the next few days. If they do, those looking for a not-Romney might rally around him.
Santorum has wisely decided to contest the New Hampshire primary. Expanding his brand there will be crucial for maintaining his momentum. There's a reason why many Perry supporters and Gingrich supporters are deriding Santorum's chances of getting the nomination: he's a serious threat to them. If momentum starts to accrue to Santorum, we might see Gingrich and, possibly, Perry focus their fire on him rather than on Romney. We might also see Gingrich choose instead to focus on tearing down Romney in order to keep him from getting the nomination---whether that leads to a Gingrich victory or not. Santorum's victory speech tonight presents a less angry Santorum, one focusing on economic growth and social optimism. Like Romney, he has won in Democratic-leaning areas before.
A few points about the future:
The January 10 New Hampshire Primary: Look at Santorum's and Huntsman's performances. A decent showing in New Hampshire can keep Santorum nationally viable. Huntsman needs a strong showing to keep his campaign vital.
The January 21 South Carolina Primary: This could be a bloody, bloody battlefield. It's hard to see how both Gingrich and Perry make it out of this primary, if they both make it to that point. Perry is especially vulnerable here; Gingrich could have strong, though not winning, numbers and still limp on to Florida. A Romney win here would almost guarantee him the nomination, though he in no way needs to win in order to maintain his leading status. Santorum's numbers will also bear watching.