Well into the night of the Iowa caucuses tonight, as Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum battled in the single digits for first place, Piers Morgan arrived at CNN’s set and marveled at this first contest in campaign 2012. How exciting it all was, he declared.
Outside the media and the campaigns themselves, the more apt term is not excitement, but muddled.
Despite all of the build-up to Iowa coverage — much of it on the mark when it came to predicting the top three — caucus night on TV was a slog of punditry and trickling vote counts, with little resolution of the race. Commentators talked of the volatility of the electorate, the uncertainty of their decision-making and the troubles the party is having in coalescing around any one candidate. On FoxNews.com, Pat Caddell labeled the field of candidates “pygmies” before a panel of fellow campaign veterans speculated whether it was too late for other GOP contenders to enter the race.
Nevertheless, despite the enthusiasm gap, news networks sought to bring electricity to the night.
CNN deployed what looked like a massive new set with graphics seemingly sophisticated enough to drill down into caucusgoers’ hair color. MSNBC enlisted Rachel Maddow to host the evening, offering a bit of breaking news that Gary Johnson, who did not even reach 1%, would drop out and endorse Ron Paul. Then she had to backtrack when Johnson’s campaign insisted it was not true. Fox News’s Bret Baier went well into the evening wondering what was taking so long for two precincts to deliver votes, raising alarms over reports that a batch of ballots was for some reason en route in a truck from Ames. To start off the evening, all of the news networks, most print and online news organizations and plenty in the Twitter-sphere passed along results from “entrance” polls, all the while noting that based on past experience they can’t be trusted. Much more sedate was Current TV, with co-founder Al Gore as a pundit, but the backstory is the apparent tension with Keith Olbermann, who was kept off the air. “So as not to mislead: I am informed Countdown will not be on tonight. I must defer all questions to @JoelHyatt, @AlGore and @Current,” he tweeted.
Delegate wise, it didn’t matter who came in first, with so few votes separating Romney and Santorum. Romney chucked a Teleprompter and gave what was essentially a stump speech to his supporters, while Santorum gave an emotional recap of his unlikely placement in a campaign considered until only in the last week a longshot. The real drama came in the angry concession of fourth place finisher Newt Gingrich, seething at an avalanche of SuperPAC funded attack ads against him. He probably has little chance of securing the nomination, yet determined to irritate Mitt Romney from here on out.
If anything, what caucus night did was winnow the field. Rick Perry said he would head to Texas to reassess his campaign, a good signal that he’s about to drop out.
Michele Bachmann, who did even worse with 5%, read a long statement in which she recalled her win of the Iowa Straw Poll, the high water mark of her campaign. She thanked Iowa voters for that victory, then dismissed the results of the caucus. “I prefer to let the country decide who is our nominee.”