Branstad defends Iowa Republican Party's handling of caucuses

But says GOP chair should have declared Santorum winner earlier

UPDATE: Gov. Terry Branstad conceded Monday that Republican Party of Iowa officials made “a mistake” in not immediately declaring former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum the winner of the 2012 Iowa caucuses when the certified results were issued last week. But he argued that Santorum’s victory was later clarified and that temporary glitch should not disqualify Iowa to maintain its first-in-the-nation position in the presidential nominating process in the future.

During his weekly news conference, the governor defended Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn and his party’s caucus process against critics who have lampooned the see-saw 2012 presidential preference results, in which former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was tabbed the unofficial winner by eight votes early Jan. 4. The verdict then swung in Santorum’s favor by at least 34 votes when certified but incomplete results were announced last Thursday. Party officials acknowledged that results of eight out of 1,774 precincts did not meet the Jan. 18 certification deadline and were not included in final tallies.

“I’m proud of the Iowa caucus system and I respect the fact that there were a few mistakes made, but I don’t think that Iowa should forfeit its opportunity to be first in the nation in caucuses because of a few minor mistakes,” Branstad told reporters. He noted that this year’s GOP caucus turnout set a record and the outcome was the closest ever for Iowa.

Strawn initially announced that Romney was the unofficial leader when all precincts had reported results in the early morning hours after the Jan. 3 caucuses were held. Two weeks later, he announced the certified results that showed Santorum ahead by 34 votes but party officials said the outcome was in doubt due to the missing eight precincts. However, late Friday Strawn and the party’s state central committee issued a statement declaring that Santorum was the winner “in order to clarify conflicting reports and to affirm the results released Jan. 18 by the Republican Party of Iowa.”

Branstad told reporters Monday he thought Strawn “made a mistake” by not definitively declaring Santorum the winner on Jan. 19, “but he made up for it” with last Friday’s statement of clarification.

“I will say I think he’s worked very hard and I think he’s done a reasonable job,” Branstad said in defending Strawn amid calls from some Iowa Republicans that he resign as party leader. “I guess you can criticize him if you want, but I respect and appreciate how difficult and challenging that it is.”

The GOP governor also said he believed the caucuses should remain a volunteer-driven event with “real people” participating in a grassroots process that again performed its primary role to winnow the presidential field. He noted that the four top finishers in Iowa are the four Republicans who remain in the 2012 presidential race.“I think we can continue to perfect and improve on it. I doubt we will ever have a caucus as close as this one, but nevertheless we want to be as accurate as possible,” he said. “But also I don’t think we want to lose the flavor of the Iowa caucuses, which is not all about who has the most money and who’s got the biggest machine or who can manipulate the process.”