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  • Writer's pictureLibby Johnson

Caucus ’12: Counting Errors


This is the eleventh installment in a series of 13 blog posts, each covering the events of a specific historic caucus and placing it in its political context. Each post will be accompanied by reference material currently archived at the Drake University Political Papers Archive.



At 1:30 in the morning on January 4th, 2012, chairman Matt Strawn of the Republican Party of Iowa walked outside the hotel conference room that RPI was using as its temporary headquarters to address a group of reporters waiting for updates on the caucus results. He brought news of a tight race; Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum had remained locked within grasp of first place for most of the evening. But by early morning, they had finally tracked down the votes from the last remaining precinct so that Strawn could announce the results. Mitt Romney narrowly won the 2012 Iowa caucus by a margin of only eight votes. The press conference went off without a hitch. Reporters sent information about Romney’s victory to their networks, and party officials went home to sleep after a long and stressful day. Candidates, media, and public attention were already en route to New Hampshire as they readied themselves for a primary the following week. The only catch: Mitt Romney didn’t win the Iowa caucus that year. More than a week later, after regrouping and recounting totals from precincts that were misrecorded or needed corrections during the first tally, RPI found that it was Rick Santorum who had won by a wider but still small margin of 34 votes out of more than 100,000 cast that night. Santorum got his moment in the spotlight as news stations phoned him in to get his view on the change in record, but by then, the damage had already been done. Romney had already won New Hampshire, while Santorum placed fifth. This was not the first and last time things would go wrong for the Iowa caucuses[I].


Conventional knowledge holds that Rick Santorum won the 2012 Iowa caucus, but it is also true that there is no way we can know for sure who won. The vote totals in eight different precincts around the state went missing and will never be counted. With a victory margin of only 34 votes, it remains entirely possible that Romney could have won all along[ii]. The issue wasn’t necessarily that precinct votes had not been accurately reported—that had happened before at previous caucuses with little consequence. The problem was how close the race was. Most caucus years feature a clear enough winner to announce results before all precincts have been reported. With the top two candidates hovering within a few dozen votes of each other for most of the night, mistakes were exposed that a wider victory margin would have covered up. After all, in a system run solely by the leadership of state party organizations that have the enormous task of organizing hundreds of precinct chairs and volunteers in the nearly 2,000 precincts across the state, there are bound to be mistakes. The only difference was that in 2012, those small mistakes had the power to tip the race.

Months before the caucuses started, many anticipated narrowing the Republican field down to two candidates. One expected candidate was Governor Mitt Romney, who was the frontrunner and more moderate than most of his rivals. Many Republicans opted to vote for Romney out of hopes that he would be the most likely to beat President Obama in the general election. The second candidate was a not-yet-decided conservative alternative to Romney, who would appeal more to a general base of Republicans. The non-Romney vote, split between multiple candidates going into the caucuses, would eventually be narrowed down to one, and Santorum wanted that role. So, he decided to focus his energies here, spending precious time and fundraising dollars on Iowa as he slowly built up a standing in the state. His climb had yet to begin to show up in the pre-caucus polls, but it was clear to many people on the ground that he was gaining momentum and had the potential to pull off an unexpectedly high performance on caucus night.


An error this public put a lot of attention on Iowa and on the role of the caucus in general, and not necessarily in a positive way. Exposing the flaws of the counting procedure made some people question the validity of the Iowa caucus as an institution. People called the caucuses unrepresentative, time-consuming, overly partisan, and too complicated for what they’re worth—attacks that had been used against them for decades but ones that rang particularly true following a failed performance. As a result of this type of backlash, Matt Strawn later resigned from his role as RPI.



During his belated claim of victory, Santorum set the record straight and told the country: “I don’t blame Iowa.” However, his words were not enough to convince everyone and the caucuses still received their fair share of contempt every time they rolled around. Although Romney eventually went on to win the Republican nomination and lose to President Obama in the general, there is no saying what could have happened if Rick Santorum had won decisively that night in the Iowa caucus. Momentum from Iowa has carried candidates to the White House, but in 2012, some counting errors stood in the way.

 




[i] “Episode 3: Process and Controversy - Three Tickets: History and Culture of the Iowa Caucuses.” Omny Studio - Omny.Fm, Jan. 2020, omny.fm/shows/three-tickets-history-and-culture-of-the-iowa-cauc/episode-3-process-and-controversy.

[ii] CNN Wire Staff. “Santorum Hails Delayed Iowa Victory as ‘huge Upset’ | CNN Politics.” CNN, Cable News Network, 20 Jan. 2012, www.cnn.com/2012/01/19/politics/iowa-caucus/index.html.

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