The race was over before it was over.
Even as officials were still counting votes in some of Idaho’s most populous counties, media heavyweights like CNN, Fox News and NBC called the Gem State’s first-ever GOP caucus a win for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Romney took 62 percent of the vote with more than 89 percent of caucus sites reporting Wednesday morning. Texas Congressman Ron Paul lagged behind, capturing 17 percent. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum snagged 17 percent among caucus-goers, while former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich won 2 percent.
Most importantly, Romney took home all of Idaho’s 32 delegates, adding to his lead among the four contenders. CNN projections say with wins in Idaho, Ohio, Virginia, Massachusetts and Vermont, Romney now holds 396 delegates, compared with Santorum’s 158. Gingrich has 103 and Paul rounds out the pack with 58.
At the Ada County GOP caucus site, more than 9,000 people packed into the Taco Bell Arena in Boise, referred to as the “taco center” by Gov. Butch Otter during his stump speech for Romney.
Prior to voting, surrogates had the opportunity to lay out their candidate’s conservative credentials for the crowd. Jen Pitino, state director for the Paul campaign, lauded the Texas congressman’s dedication to pro-life principles, along with his tight fiscal policies. “Ron Paul is the constitutional conservative … and he has the record to prove it,” Pitino told the crowd.
Otter, speaking for Romney, pounded not his GOP challengers, but rather the man occupying the White House. “We no longer have hope,” Otter said, playing off President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign them. “And the promise seems to be fleeting. But we can change that!”
Otter touted Romney’s business record as one of achievement, calling him a “turnaround artist” for his work in the 2002 Winter Olympics and his fiscal record in the Bay State. Otter also defended Romney’s wealth, often a flashpoint on the campaign trail for the former governor and GOP frontrunner. “We want to celebrate wealth,” Otter said. “We want to celebrate success in this country.”
Santorum, who didn’t have a surrogate, but rather provided a pre-recorded video for the crowd, rolled out his plan to create jobs and revive the economy. “I am going to eliminate the Obama job-killing regulations,” Santorum said. He also suggested he would eliminate the manufacturing tax to spur job creation.
The former Pennsylvania senator attempted to sway fiscal conservatives, bragging about entitlement reform he pushed through Congress, as well as announcing his plans to get a balanced budget amendment added to the U.S. Constitution. Santorum said his administration would address the $15 trillion U.S. national debt through the amendment and spending cuts. “We will never have this problem again,” he urged.
Gingrich’s surrogate, playing off concerns over rising oil prices, suggested only the former U.S. House speaker is equipped with the big ideas to get gas back to $2.50 per gallon.
Romney didn’t sweep all of Idaho’s 44 counties, but he delivered key victories where it mattered most. In Ada County, Romney took 51.79 percent of the vote in the first round, ending the contest immediately. In Bonneville County, Romney took an overwhelming 79 percent of the vote, a total also delivered in the first round.
In Idaho’s second-most populous county, it took two rounds for Romney to take the win. Canyon County Republicans gathered at the Idaho Center in Nampa and gave Romney 45 percent of votes in the first round, not enough to declare a winner. After Gingrich was forced out for not receiving enough votes, Romney took the caucus in the second round with 51 percent.
Paul and Santorum managed to grab a few counties of their own along the way. Paul claimed north Idaho’s Boundary and Bonner counties, along with Latah, Camas and Idaho counties. Santorum took Owyhee, Clearwater, Benewah, Lewis Kootenai and Washington counties.
Gingrich did not win any counties.
This was Idaho’s first-ever caucus. In prior years, the state used a primary system to pick presidential nominees, but GOP leaders wanted to be relevant in the race for the White House, so they decided to switch to a caucus system and move the nominating contest earlier in the calendar year. Idaho’s primary election is held in May, a time by which the GOP nominee is usually already decided.
The calendar move did, in fact, help make Idaho relevant in the nominating contest. Each of the candidates made a visit to Idaho at least once, and Paul made several stops statewide. Romney and Santorum each held two events, while Gingrich made a single appearance in north Idaho.
Note: For final results and a county-by-county voting breakdown, check out CNN’s Idaho page here.