Rick Santorum: Iowa sunk my candidacy but the state’s voters deserve credit (opinion)

Eight years ago, after six months of campaigning and 385 Iowa town hall meetings, my campaign anxiously awaited the results of the 2012 Iowa caucus at the Stoney Creek Inn in Urbandale, just outside Des Moines.

We knew something special was brewing, but no cable news pundit, news wire service or party official would declare a winner. We took matters into our own hands — we made the decision to speak to our supporters who were gathering in the hotel ballroom. It was “Game on!

We were certain that regardless of whether we won or just came in a razor-close second, our results would be “the story” on every newspaper across the country the next morning.

We were certain that the momentum from days of positive press would propel our campaign from onetime obscurity to the conservative alternative to moderate Mitt Romney. Ideally, that would have led to millions of dollars in online donations, which could have helped fund our grassroots efforts and allowed us to buy air-time in the early primary states.

Boy were we wrong! The Republican Party of Iowa felt considerable pressure to pull off a flawless caucus. And if this race had been a normal race with a clear winner, they would have succeeded. But this race was so close that every vote mattered. Thanks to the crack team of John King and Wolf Blitzer, that last precinct was tracked down after 1 a.m. ET.
Shortly after, the Iowa state chair decided he had to declare a winner: Romney. The margin: eight votes!
We asked for the Iowa GOP to hold off until the vote was certified. They not only refused but insisted that the results would stand after certification. The headlines across America were Romney wins Iowa. This gave Romney a boost in New Hampshire. Meanwhile, in my hometown paper I wasn’t mentioned in the story until the third paragraph.

The next morning, I did a round robin of morning show interviews where I was patted on the back for a good job, but it was like my campaign and I were receiving a participation trophy. Still, donations came in, and we raised overnight almost as much as we raised the previous year, but without the headlines and chyrons across the cable screens declaring our victory, it was well short of our hopes.

The Iowa Caucuses were a disaster -- and here's why it shouldn't worry Americans

Before I took off for New Hampshire, we received a call from a precinct chair in Appanoose County who told us that Romney got two votes in his precinct — not the officially reported 22. He said he informed the state party. I called the chair and asked for an announcement of the mistake and a statement that the results were uncertain. The response? There would be no more announcements until the vote was certified.

Nearly two weeks later, a week after the New Hampshire primary and the morning of the South Carolina primary, Iowa Republican Party Chair Matt Strawn announced that the recount had me ahead by 34 votes, but he was declaring it a virtual tie!

The announcement was a muddled mess and was barely noticed by the national media on the day of the South Carolina primary. In spite of that, I had the chance to pull another comeback later in the campaign, though it obviously fell short.

The Iowa Democratic Party knew that history and didn’t want to repeat it. So it made changes in an effort to be transparent about the alignment totals versus the state delegate counts, and it tried to streamline the whole process through a new app. Sadly, the app failed.

I watched this week from the CNN Washington Bureau with some sympathy for the Democrat candidates. I knew what Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar was thinking when she was first to take the stage to address her supporters without knowing whether she had overperformed. I knew what decisions former Vice President Joe Biden was being forced to make — stay the course and go to New Hampshire, or skip the Granite State and head to South Carolina where he is the frontrunner. And I knew the budget decisions they will all need to make without the cash infusion they would have received from a strong showing.

Most of all, I feel sorry for the people of Iowa. Iowans, both Republicans and Democrats, are the most informed voters in the country. I always tell my friends in Pennsylvania there is a reason Iowa comes first: voters truly believe they are the human resources department for the country, and they take that job seriously by not just attending rallies but meeting the candidates and asking harder questions of them than any debate moderator.

As the results dribble out, they will be unsatisfying to almost everyone — at least to some degree. But this system of tabulating the results and checking them twice is much fairer to the process and to the candidates than getting it wrong and keeping a lid on it.

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