WEST DES MOINES, Iowa -- I'm headed to a caucus in this pleasant suburb, whose Kum and Gos and intersections I have come to know and adore. Once the action begins there, I'll start writing it up. When the votes begin to come in, I'll be putting them up, too. For a few hours, we can forget that these results don't actually matter for anything but media-driven momentum.
You have questions. All right.
How does this work? Republicans meet at locations in their precincts. Caucus captains for each candidate -- or as many candiates who have captains -- make their pitches. Republicans vote via secret ballots. Representatives of the campaigns go with the precinct chairman to call in the votes, which are counted in an undisclosed location. (I talked to Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn about this last night, after he'd spent some time pre-empting fears that the election would be somehow stolen. The secret location is meant to prevent some Occupy-type disruption.)
How will I know who's winning? You can wait, obviously, or you can start watching key counties and checking turnout. If it's over 130,000 or so, some groups of voters are showing up with unusual force. If they're independents and Democrats, watch the Ron Paul numbers. If it's evangelicals, watch the Santorum numbers.
How to track the counties? In today's The Fix blog, Chris Cillizza recommends looking at Dallas County (the conservative Des Moines burbs), Dubuque County (urban, Catholic, strong for Romney in 2008), Johnson County (where Iowa City and its Ron Paul-loving college students live), and most importantly, Polk County. In 2008, Mike Huckabee won 36 percent of the 22,493 votes cast here, presaging his statewide victory. Compare all of this to the 2008 results here.
Seriously, where are the numbers? Eventually, here.
7:40: Here at the precinct caucus in West Des Moines, dozens of voters are showing up and switching their registration. Radio host Steve Deace, whom I'm trailing a bit -- and who'll speak for Newt -- paces the floor, predicting that his candidate will lose.
"This caucus went big for Romney last time," he says. "It could have been a good room for Newt, but he decided to let Mitt Romney run over him for two weeks. These voters like winners."
8:10: The CNN entrance poll, which may be revised over the night, looks incredibly good for Mitt Romney. Seventy percent of voters are 45 or older. These voters are going strongly for Romney.
8:18: More from the poll...
- Bachmann gets 13 percent of "strong" Tea Party supporters, running sixth overall -- Santorum is first. She is, you'll recall, chairwoman of the "Tea Party caucus." And she won't break single digits.
- So much for the newsletter story. Paul cleans up with "liberal or moderate" voters, winning 40 percent of them, and wins 48 percent of independents.
- Gingrich looks to be headed for fourth place, Perry close behind. The big difference: Only 9 percent think the "oops" guy can defeat Obama.
9:08: The results in my caucus, West Des Moines precinct 214:
Romney - 123
Paul - 42
Santorum - 38
Newt Gingrich - 30
Perry - 23
Huntsman - 3
Bachmann - 2
Nathan Pigott, Huntsman's ballot observer, is practically giddy. "No one spoke for him," he says, "and he insulted Iowa!"
9:30: More entrance poll numbers, presumably fixed by results from rural Iowa, are giving us a better Santorum result and a tighter contest overall. But the Ron Paul surge is making it tough to screen Romney's 2008 numbers against his numbers tonight. I'm en route to the Ron Paul party.
9:58: Mood at the Paul party, in Ankeny -- pretty far from downtown -- is nervous and confused. I don't blame them, because it's confusing! Walking in, I caught fleeting sight of Bachmann-to-Paul endorser Kent Sorenson, and ran into my old friend Brian Doherty, a senior editor at reason, who's writing a book about Paul.
"It's getting worse every time I look," said Doherty.
It is. The new numbers have erased the small advantages Paul had, the ones that made his odd right-wing/left-wing coalition possible. Paul is winning Johnson and Blackhawk counties, where (respectively) UNI and the University of Iowa provide him with liberals and college students.
10:15: Here's why this is tough to analyze. This is the 2008 map. Romney in pink, Huckabee in grey, Paul in yellow.
Here's Google's map of the vote tonight, so far.
If Romney holds that western Iowa vote, and doesn't lose too badly in Webster County, he wins. Otherwise, he doesn't.
10:43: Ominous for Romney: He's underperforming his 2008 numbers in those western counties. In 2008, he won Plymouth County (Le Mars) by 9. It's all in now: He's beaten Santorum there by only 1 point.
Now on at the Paul party: "Won't Get Fooled Again." Fittingly enough, I ran into Sen. Kent Sorenson right beforehand, and got to engage him in a conversation.
ME: Hey, how are you feeling?
SORENSON: Sorry, I'm not doing interviews. Sorry.
Feel the confidence! But at least the guy didn't stick with the 6th place finisher.
11:09: This was the scene when Fox News -- the surprising TV choice at the Paul party -- announced that Paul would come in third place.
Shortly thereafter, Paul's family took the stage, looking suitably glum. "Cheer up!" yelled one supporter. "You're related to Ron Paul!" It worked, and within a minute Paul walked on, introduced as "the Thomas Jefferson of our time." He put on his game face, telling the crowd -- including supporters from Colorado, Florida, Canada, and a bunch of places I didn't find anecdotes from -- that they had "everything to be proud of," and that they'd fight on in New Hampshire.
"I look forward to the day," said Paul, "when we can say, 'We are all Austrians now!'"
He took in the cheers, then -- revealingly -- headed right out. Very little glad-handling. (At least this kept a now-infamous autograph-seeker from Omaha, a woman with triangle-shaped white hair, from bothering him.) I walked past Jack Hunter, Paul's campaign blogger, who was being interrupted from gloom by photograph-seekers.
"Two months ago, would you have taken this result?"
"Oh, yeah!" he said.
11:34: On the way out I talked to George Davey, a West Des Moines caucus-goer who reminded me that Slate had quoted him in 2004 -- he'd been a precinct captain for Howard Dean. He'd had a conversion since then.
"If the media wasn't restricted by the shackles of spin and lies, Ron Paul would go to the Moon and back."
12:04: I made the short drive from Ankeny to the Fort Des Moines Hotel, where Mitt Romney will declare... something, at some point. Rep. Aaron Schock, the disturbingly handsome sophomore from Illinois, chatted with supporters about where he'd be deployed next. "We'll see where they want to send me," he said. Moments later, shouts went up outside the ballroom, and an Occupy protester -- whom very few reporters actually say, thanks to kung-fu-grip security -- screamed about the 99%, then gave up. "I guess I'm going to jail now," she said.
12:10: While in transit, Rick Perry admitted the obvious and announced that he'd "return to Texas" and assess whether there's a path forward. It's the worst news all night for Mitt Romney. A pathetic, shambling Perry, still flush with cash, can keep splitting conservative votes in the South, where Romney struggles. A cleaned-up field -- no Bachmann or Perry maybe no Huntsman, by South Carolina -- allows Santorum to pick up all those voters who can't stand Romney.
12:23: Rick Santorum, finally realizing that he's not going to get any headline better than "Game on," takes the stage and says just that. You're very welcome, headline writers. Moments after he steps on, there's a cheer in the ballroom and quick-step rush over to see what happened. Not much, just a surge of votes from Story County (Ames, where Romney didn't and Santorum did compete in the straw poll) put Romney over Santorum by 57 votes.