The first votes for the 2012 elections have been cast. Clearly the headline from last night is the Santorum surge in the last couple of days, better timed than any of the other candidates who had had their day in the sun. Oh and Mitt Romney eked out about an 8-votes win matching his own performance by percentage points in 2008.
So let's get down to the real results before the morning spin begins. Santorum has the most room for growth among the top three finishers in Iowa. Most important, Gingrich is furious, and he will be taking Romney on in the days to come (even if he would be wiser to go after Santorum so he doesn't sound like a petulant child). That leaves Santorum free to try to get a decent showing in New Hampshire, which is why he has decided to put his chips in that state rather than divide it equally between there and South Carolina, where presumably, he expects to do well with the social conservatives there as he did in Iowa. Meanwhile, if Bachmann or Perry drop out, their votes are now up for grabs. They may go to Gingrich, but Santorum will be vying hard for then. All this points to Santorum as the potential anti-Romney candidate in the days to come, but things are very fluid because Santorum does not have an ground operation set up the way Romney does, it does not look to be a year for social (values) conservatism, and the media has done a darn good job of shining the spotlight on and taking down every anti-Romney candidate who has emerged in the last couple of months -- and they have already started.
Here are some non-stories that are worth exploring. That Ron Paul, who is at the fringe of the Republican Party and who has not ruled out a third-party run, came in third suggests that his message cannot be taken lightly. Add his support to Santorum's support and one can almost say that the shake-up of the Republican establishment is underway. But this is still anybody's game because number 2 and 3 are as far apart ideologically as any two contenders in the Republican primary could possibly be. This is unusual, and suggests a party in deep self-introspection. This is a chance for a serious recalibration, but clearly also a chance for a drawn out battle that will benefit the incumbent, Barack Obama. (Incidentally, turnout was about the same as it was in 2008, at 122,000 - good news for Democrats who are expecting an enthusiasm gap in the Republicans' failure this time.)
Romney's best chance forward is to say that he is the candidate with the best chance of defeating Obama. He should repeat that ad nauseum, and remind people that he visited Iowa only 9 times this round (Santorum had visited every county) after his embarrassing defeat in 2008. Romney is clearly a seasoned operative who knows how to play this game. Even more important, a win in New Hampshire, which the polls right now predict, could give him the earliest hint of an inevitable winner. Why? Because he would be the first non-incumbent Republican candidate to win both Iowa and New Hampshire. (Edmund Muskie in 1972 and Al Gore in 2000 managed that on the Democratic side.) For all the talk of a disunited Republican party, this would be a non-trivial milestone if Romney maintains his considerable lead in New Hampshire.