How Will the Iowa Caucuses Affect the GOP Nominination Race?

Mitt Romney's razor-thin victory at the Iowa Caucuses Tuesday provided pundits and the general public with a first taste of the 2012 election.

Mitt Romney's razor-thin victory at the Iowa Caucuses Tuesday provided pundits and the general public with a first taste of the 2012 election. Romney edged Rick Santorum by eight votes to take first place: 30,015 to 30,007. Both earned an estimated 25 percent of the vote. Ron Paul was a decisive third with 21 percent. Newt Gingrich (13 percent), Rick Perry (10 percent), Michelle Bachmann (5 percent) and Jon Huntsman (1 percent) filled out the rest of the field.

So, the nomination race is officially underway. New Hampshire primary's on Jan. 10, followed by South Carolina's, then Florida's and the other states that will hold their nominating contests through the summer. The winner will square off with President Barack Obama on Nov. 6, 2012. At stake, of course, is the White House, but voters could also radically alter the political landscapes of the U.S. Congress and their state legislatures this fall.

Governing used Patchwork Nation, a project by The Christian Science Monitor, WNYC, Politico and PBS NewsHour, to track the results from Iowa Tuesday night. The interactive map analyzes the votes by geography and various demographics. I asked Dante Chinni, project director for Patchwork Nation, to offer some perspective on the caucus numbers and what they could mean for the race to control the White House, Congress and statehouses nationwide. His responses have been edited for clarity.

Starting off, the most pertinent question: What does Romney's slight win mean for the rest of the primaries, particularly with New Hampshire and South Carolina on the immediate horizon?

Dante Chinni: The answers vary. He's obviously set well for New Hampshire for a variety of reasons, including geography and residency, but looking at the state through Patchwork Nation, its demographics work well for him. The state's population is heavily centered in the wealthy Monied Burb counties, counties Romney won in Iowa. But he may face a challenge in some of the state's poorer Service Worker counties. He lost those counties in Iowa and did poorly in them in 2008.

I think the real question in New Hampshire is how does Romney do compared to what he did there in 2008. South Carolina is completely different. The landscape there is rich with these Minority Central counties -- places with large African American populations. The whites in those places tend to be quite conservative with a strong evangelical flavor. Not likely Romney voters. Florida, the primary after, may end up being the big one.

Were there any surprises with how any particular age or gender group voted? What about religious, ethnic or ideological?

Honestly, not really. Things in Iowa turn out about as we expected, which, of course, makes us feel like we are measuring things properly. Ron Paul's strength in the Burbs surprised us at first, but we thought there might be some populist sentiment there -- especially among caucus goers. But in the end, the vote settled down and went to Romney.

What does the level of turnout, a record 122,000 voters for Republicans (according to the Associated Press) tell us for both national and more local races?

It might be dangerous to read too much into that, I think. Remember, back in 2008, all the energy was on the Democratic side of the ticket. That's where a lot of independents likely went. Without that Democratic race in 2012, a lot of independents went to vote in the GOP caucuses. The real test will be what kind of turnout you get in a closed primary state where it is difficult to switch party affiliation.

Let's look at state legislatures. Last year was obviously a big year for Republicans. Based on who turned out on Tuesday and which way they voted, can we start to guess what 2012 might look like? Would you expect another strong GOP showing, the Democrats to regain some ground, or is it simply too early to tell?

Honestly, way too early to tell. I think the Democrats will likely do better overall than they did in 2010 because Obama will be on the top of the ticket. More Dems voting means Dems will do better. There is also a possibility that the political left will be more enthused because of the nascent populist movements on their side, particularly in the form of the Occupy crowd. But will that signal a shift in the how the public in general feels? Maybe not.

I do believe there are much bigger changes coming in the long-run. Our economic reporting indicates these populist movements are just beginning and I expect them to grow. But those changes are further down the road and their meaning is hard to judge from here.

Lastly, would you expect the major races to trickle down to the lower levels? For example, would an Obama victory likely mean gains for Democrats in Congress and state legislatures? Or vice versa with a Republican win for the White House?

Well, I guess I expect a much tighter presidential race in 2012 than in 2008, but I'm not sure how much the GOP will gain further down the ticket if they win the White House. They won so much in 2010. If I were them, I'd be more focused on holding on to what I have.

Dylan Scott is a GOVERNING staff writer.