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First Thoughts: What we learned from last night

NBC's Chuck Todd and David Gregory assess the results from the Iowa caucuses and discuss where the race goes from here.

What we learned from last night: 1) Romney still has a problem with his party’s conservative base… 2) Rick Santorum may be for real… 3) New Hampshire is going to be fascinating to watch… Also: Measuring Santorum’s NH bounce… Romney gets McCain’s endorsement (but is that the best way for him to shore up his conservative-base problems?)… On Paul’s third-place finish… Newt strikes back… Perry sounds like he’s done… So does Bachmann (she holds a presser at 11:00 am ET)… And the GOP’s record (and still disappointing) turnout.

*** What we learned from last night: Despite the thrilling photo-finish start to the first voting of the 2012 presidential contest -- with Mitt Romney finally topping Rick Santorum by just eight votes (!!!) -- we learned pretty much what we already knew heading into last night’s Iowa caucuses, albeit with one big exception. We learned that Romney has a LONG way to go with his party’s conservative base. Of the 47% of caucus-goers identifying themselves as “very conservative,” Romney got just 14% of that vote (compared with Santorum’s 35%). Romney won another 14% from the nearly six in 10 who are evangelical Christians (versus Santorum’s 32%). At some point, he will have to win where conservatives put him over the top, and once he does he’ll be the nominee -- but not until then. (Maybe it'll be in South Carolina, maybe Florida, but he needs it somewhere.) We also learned that Romney still can’t crack the 25% he continues to get in many polls (and what just happened to be the percentage he won in Iowa four years ago).

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, who won the Iowa caucuses by just eight votes, tells TODAY'S Matt Lauer he is "absolutely delighted" by the results of the caucuses but acknowledged it's going to be a "long road ahead" to the nomination.

*** Glass half full for Romney: On the positive side for Romney, we learned that he does MUCH better among Republicans who see the economy as their top issue and who want to beat President Obama in November. And we learned that his final opponent probably won’t be Newt Gingrich or Rick Perry, two folks who either had the money or the potential to go toe to toe with Romney over the long haul. On Monday, Romney said he was going to win Iowa. And he did. Unfortunately for him, his victory -- something he was unable to accomplish four years ago -- got overshadowed by someone else.

*** Santorum may be for real: The one thing we didn’t know heading into last night that we ultimately learned: Rick Santorum is for real. Indeed, he became the story of the night, consolidating just enough of the conservative/evangelical vote to nearly win. (By the way, we’re guessing had Santorum had one more day, he probably would have won). His challenge now? To get the time to start putting together the resources and campaign infrastructure to compete with Romney in New Hampshire and beyond. What to watch: Do movement conservatives who have so far stayed on the sidelines (the Palins, the Cains, the DeMints, Tea Party groups, etc.) begin rallying to his side? This is the last conservative train leaving the station. Does Romney upset these folks enough that they want to potentially upset the eventual Republican nominee? That's the calculation that may be taking place among these folks.

*** New Hampshire is going to be fascinating to watch: And here’s another thing we didn’t know that we ultimately learned from last night: The upcoming New Hampshire contest is going to be FASCINATING, as well as potential trouble for Romney. It’s do-or-die time for Jon Huntsman. Gingrich last night warned that he will make New Hampshire his Alamo (more on that below). So you could have Huntsman hitting Romney from the middle and Gingrich hitting him from the right. That creates an opportunity for Santorum, who has the potential to stay above that fray and pull off another surprising finish. Second place in New Hampshire is worth something if it’s 25% or more.

*** Measuring Santorum’s New Hampshire bounce: How much can Santorum benefit in New Hampshire with his virtual tie for first in Iowa? Traditionally, the top-three finishers in Iowa haven’t experienced much of a boost – just 3 points jump on average from the last New Hampshire poll before the Iowa caucuses to the actual New Hampshire result. But the 1996 Republican presidential primary might be instructive (another year when a fairly weak front-runner (Bob Dole) was running for the second time and against a Democratic incumbent in the general election.) In 1996, Pat Buchanan finished second in Iowa and jumped 12 points in New Hampshire to win with 27%. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who faced questions of viability in the Granite State and was polling at just 9%, got a 14-point bounce and finished a very close third with 23%. The last Suffolk tracking poll showed Santorum at just 5% in New Hampshire, so if he gets the 12-to-14 point Buchanan-Alexander bounce, he could finish with 17%-21% -- still far short of what Romney is expected to get.

*** Romney gets McCain’s endorsement: When Romney gets to New Hampshire today, he’ll pick up the endorsement from John McCain, NBC News has confirmed. This means, by the way, that Romney will now have endorsements from three of the four living past GOP nominees (George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, and John McCain). The exception: George W. Bush. But here is something to chew on for Romney: If he has a problem with conservative Republicans, and if they are his threat heading into the future GOP contests, why is he highlighting the Republican whom many movement and social conservatives love to hate?

*** Obama camp on Romney’s “poor performance”: Not surprisingly, the Obama campaign has pounced on last night’s results for Romney. “A day after predicting victory and after six years of trying to win Iowa, Mitt Romney was unable to reach the same margin of the vote he received in 2008 among a Republican field widely recognized as weak,” a campaign official emailed First Read. “It was a poor performance from a candidate who did everything possible to win -- even sacrificing principles to become the self-professed Tea Party candidate and to get to the right of Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich.” Also, the Obama campaign’s Jim Messina and David Axelrod will hold a conference call with reporters at noon ET.

*** On Paul’s third-place finish: Turning to the other candidates, Ron Paul certainly did well with the young voters, independents, and first-time caucus-goers. But it wasn’t enough to avoid finishing third, at 21%. With his campaign money and his devoted followers, Paul has the potential to stay in the race for the long haul. But third place is a disappointment for the Texas congressman, because Iowa was the one place that had the potential for him to score a victory.

*** Newt strikes back: Gingrich made it very clear in his speech last night that he’s going on the attack against Romney. During his speech last night, Gingrich praised Santorum for running a positive campaign, but then he added: “I wish could say for all candidates.” Gingrich went on to say that the GOP would have a debate on whether to elect a Reagan conservative who helped change Washington, or a “Massachusetts moderate good at managing decay.” In fact, his campaign is already running a full-page ad in the New Hampshire Union Leader casting Romney as a “timid Massachusetts moderate.”

*** Perry sounds like he’s done: When Rick Perry -- after finishing a disappointing fifth -- said he was traveling home to Texas to assess the state of his campaign, he sounded like someone who is already done. We’d be very surprised if he makes it to New Hampshire or South Carolina.

*** Is Bachmann about to call it quits? Meanwhile, NBC’s Jamie Novogrod reports that Michele Bachmann -- who finished in sixth – will be holding a media avail this morning at 11:00 am ET at the West Des Moines Marriott. Spokeswoman Alice Stewart says that Bachmann has canceled her trip to South Carolina. While Bachmann last night vowed to stay in the race, this feels like someone who could call it quits today.

*** The GOP’s record (and still disappointing) turnout: Here’s a final point on last night: GOP turnout in Iowa -- roughly 122,000 -- was a record. And it was important for Republicans that this turnout exceeded what they got in 2008 (118,000). But make no mistake: It was a disappointing number, especially given what Republicans were hoping for to show the enthusiasm to defeat President Obama in the fall. Getting 140,000 or 150,000 would have shown real enthusiasm. Republicans didn’t get that last night. It may have been more a reflection on the candidate field than on the prospect of defeating the president.

Countdown to New Hampshire primary: 6 days
Countdown to South Carolina primary: 17 days
Countdown to Florida primary: 27 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 31 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 62 days
Countdown to Election Day: 307 days

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