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Did Santorum win Iowa? Should you care?

You should be prepared, emotionally and otherwise, for the very real possibility that when the results of the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses are officially certified tonight, Rick Santorum might have narrowly beaten Mitt Romney.

This possibiilty has been around since caucus night, when an Iowan with the wonderful name of Edward True attended his caucus and wrote down the result, then later saw that the support for Mitt Romney in that one tiny 53-vote precinct caucus in the metropolis of Moulton Iowa had been inflated by from two to 22. No one is alleging any skullduggery (although who knows?) and the it's easy to believe that a 2 could turn into a 22 by innocent transcription error. And there could be offsetting errors somewhere else in Iowa. But, since the caucus-night (and early next morning) total had Romney beating Santorum by just seven votes, it's quite possible that if True's story is the true story, Santorum actually won.

If so, although I have personal reasons to care, the rest of you should care very little. This isn't a basketball where a one-point win is as good as a blowout. It's a long race for delegates and the difference between losing by seven or winning by 13 votes in a state with very few delegates to allot is very, very small. Basically it was a tie.

Iowa is overrated as a harbinger. Even the bounce it's supposed to give to those who win or outperform expectations seemed to be mythical this year, since Santorum, who made a huge late surge, almost from last to first, to end in a virtual tie with Romney, finished a distant fifth in New Hampshire and is currently polling third or fourth, almost 20 points behind Romney, in South Carolina and trailing distantly in Florida. Some bounce.

But John Avlon, who writes for Daily Beast/Newsweek and analyzes for CNN, argues this morning that if the final official tally shows Santorum won Iowa it could rock the race. Writes Avlon this morning:

"This not only would rewrite the election history of 2012 to date—it would invalidate the oft-repeated line that Mitt Romney is the only candidate to win both Iowa and New Hampshire. It would stop the inevitability narrative in its tracks."

Really? A 20-vote swing in Iowa after Romney has won huge in New Hampshire and leads big in South Carolina and Florida and in national polls? Methinks medoubts it.

It would be a cool story if it turns out Santorum beat Romney, who outspent him about a zillion to one. Such a win would have seemed beyond delusional if anyone had predicted it a couple of weeks ahead of the caucuses. But, in case you wonder why I said that I have a personal reason for caring, I entered a small prediction pool with a few friends the day before the caucuses (after, of course, polls had picked up Santorum's surge) and I was the only who picked Santorum to win. (What is the prize, anyway, Charlie?)

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Comments (5)

A tie is a tie is a TIE.

It's measurement error - nothing more, and nothing less. People hate to think about voting counts being anything less than completely precise, but the simple fact is that a voting count is a form of measurement, and all forms of measurement have some amount of error. That's why recounts are triggered in elections when the counts are within a certain percentage. Hopefully that percentage is actually tied to a determination of the actual measurement error, but that's not always the case. Nevertheless, measurement error exists, and there's nothing nefarious about it - it's just a fact.

Mr. True's experience is simply one nice illustration of how measurement error can be generated. Identifying the source of measurement error is usually not this cut-and-dried, but it is still nice to have an example which will hopefully help people's understanding of the concept.

For all intents and purposes, an 8 vote spread with respect to these vote totals constitutes a tie. If it were an election, it would trigger a recount (and rightly so). But as things stand, it just means that the difference between the two populations (number of votes for Romney v.s. number of votes for Santorum) falls within measurement error and are therefore technically indistinguishable from one another - i.e. a tie.

I only wish it could be reported that way . . . . .

"Did Santorum win Iowa? Should you care?"

Maybe. No. Is that it?

As a practical matter, it won't make any difference because the media has its narrative and the facts aren't going to change that. No matter the official results, Romney "won" in Iowa.

Without his Iowa "victory", the foregone conclusion of his winning New Hampshire would have had little meaning. Instead, his low vote total would have been the story. And, in fact, his vote total might have been considerably lower without his confirmed front runner status.

Its even possible Huntsman would still be in the race. There is a lot of talk about a stop Romney movement from the right, but there is at least as strong a contingent who doesn't want a "true believer" who will lose in November. To an awful lot of voters, I suspect Romney and Huntsman looked like the only potential winners among a bunch of losers. Without Iowa, Romney's showing in New Hampshire would not make him the clear winner between the two.

The right answer should be no. Santorum got all that he was going to get out of it already and that was his brief flavor of the week turn. No delegates are binding from this. The only ones that care about the vote are the news media outlets chasing stories.