A caucus night in Santorum Country, a universe apart from the Hotel Fort Des Moines

Ballots in Pella. (Ben Jacobs)
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Ben Jacobs

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PELLA, Iowa—The state of Iowa wasn’t able to make up its mind.

Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney traded leads into the wee hours of this morning, see-sawing with Romney up by one vote and then Santorum grabbing a lead of four votes. In the end, when the lost precinct of Clinton County finally reported, Mitt Romney finished ahead by eight votes. Ron Paul finished third, on the strength of support from young and independent caucus-goers.

The socially conservative stronghold of Pella, which is a Dutch-American ethnic enclave, was far less conflicted about who to nominate than the state as a whole was. At Pella Christian High School, more than 1100 voters turned out from six precincts, and they overwhelmingly chose Rick Santorum.

While Santorum fought himself to a standstill with Mitt Romney statewide, with Ron Paul just a nose behind them, he was an easy choice for Iowans like Dave Roose, a first-time caucus-goer from Pella, who was looking to back a candidate with “Christian values.”

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While Romney certainly appealed to pragmatic Republicans like Colin Tadlock, who was going back and forth between the former Massachusetts governor and Newt Gingrich until the very end, most of the Republican and independent voters here were more focused on abortion than general electability.

In a high school gym here emblazoned with American eagles, "The Star Spangled Banner" was both recited and sung, and not just the first verse, which everyone knows, but also the fourth verse, which includes the phrase “In God is our trust.” This was emphasized, a lot.

The county chair offered a five-minute invocation that ended with the phrase "in Christ's name and for his sake." And, of course, the caucus was preceded by a reading of “the Diary of an Unborn Child," followed by the statement that “if you can’t make up your mind, this might help you.”

If nothing else, the scene, and the vote, illustrated just how culturally conservative the Iowa G.O.P. is here and in the large swaths of the state that turned out to be Santorum country. Santorum enjoyed sweeping success throughout rural Iowa, winning 61 of the state’s 99 counties, compiling huge margins in ultra-conservative northwestern Iowa, and taking 61 percent of the vote in Lyon County, making him the only G.O.P. candidate to win an absolute majority in any county.

In Pella, after the presidential vote, the remaining attendees (fewer than 100 from the original crowd of more than 1100) approved a platform plank for a state constitutional amendment for fetal personhood without debate or dissent.

There were some village atheists in the crowd (and among Republican caucus-goers generally). For the most part, they supported Ron Paul. Dan Spotten, a jovial man with long hair, a thick beard and forearms lined with tattoos who is “religious at heart but not religiously observant,” knew he was up against tall odds, and was hoping Paul could get 25 percent of the vote. But he had long accepted that Santorum would win, he said.

Spotten still expressed hope for Paul’s prospects statewide, pumping his fist excitedly when he saw that Paul was up among the initial precincts that reported. But Spotten was concerned  that the social-conservative tenor of the event would scare off the Democratic-leaners that he had recruited to caucus for Paul.

Paul proved successful in areas where students made up a heavy proportion of the population, winning counties like Story, home of Iowa State, Poweshiek, where Grinnell is located, and Winneshiek, which hosts Luther College in its county seat of Decorah. However, he ran up his biggest margins in Jefferson County, which is the home of the Maharishi University of Management and has a sizable community of transcendental mediators who moved to rural Southeast Iowa town as inspired devotees of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Some Paul supporters, like Doug Roorda, were traditional social conservatives. Roorda had once been deeply skeptical of Paul but was converted to his cause by the dogged evangelism of his son, Wilson. Roorda cared about social issues, but also didn’t want a president who would involve the U.S. in Iran.

In order to convince others to follow in Roorda’s path, Paul’s youngest daughter Joy Paul LeBlanc gave a speech in which she talked about time volunteering at crisis pregnancy centers convincing women not to have abortions, as well as her father’s belief that “Life is a precious gift from God, which begins at conception.” In Pella, Paul ended up finishing a distant second to Santorum.

One candidate who tried to emphasize these social issues completely flopped. Although Michele Bachmann’s husband, Marcus, spoke to the crowd in Pella on behalf of his spouse right before the vote, his pleas for support mostly fell flat. Although Bachmann couldn't claim Dutch heritage (he was 100 percent Swiss and his wife was 100 percent Norwegian, he said) he did pledge that if he became the “First First Gentleman,” he would go on a national tour where he would “speak on a regular basis in support of marriage between one man and one woman and never be ashamed.”

While this impressed a handful of caucus-goers like Dwight Young, a longtime Bachmann supporter, most of the social conservatives in Pella, and in Iowa as a whole, had long since migrated away from her. Bachmann wound up receiving just over 6,000 votes last night in her native state, which wasn't much more than the 4,823 votes she got in the Ames Straw Poll in August.

In the end, Romney eked out his eight-vote "win" in the caucuses by winning the most populous and urban counties in the state, traditional strongholds of Iowa's old-school pro-business Republicans along the Mississippi River like Scott and Muscatine. Romney also won metro Des Moines, piling up sold margins in Polk County and Des Moines proper, as well as in the fast-growing suburbs west of the city in Dallas County, and areas that in general elections vote Democratic, like Iowa City and Dubuque.

The margin didn’t matter to the exhausted young Romney staffers running screaming through the Hotel Fort Des Moines, brandishing cans of Bud Light and then forming a circle in an empty hotel ballroom, chanting the name of state field director Sarah Craig. They continued to laugh, joke and drink into the wee hours.