MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. -- It's conventional wisdom in Republican circles here in South Carolina that if Mitt Romney wins the state's primary this Saturday -- having already won in Iowa and New Hampshire -- he'll be the GOP presidential nominee.
"If for some reason he's not derailed here and Mitt Romney wins South Carolina -- no one's ever won all three -- I think it should be over," Sen. Lindsey Graham said Sunday. "That would be quite a testament to his ability as a candidate and a campaigner."
But what if Romney did not actually win Iowa? That could change the calculation considerably. And there is a very real chance that the Republican Party of Iowa will announce this week that Rick Santorum, and not Romney, won the Iowa caucuses.
Results released on caucus night -- actually, at 2 the next morning -- showed Romney won by eight votes, 30,015 to Santorum's 30,007. Many observers assumed that those results were final, especially when party officials said there would be no recount.
But the results were not final. Even though there is no provision for a recount in the party caucuses, state GOP rules do require that the results be certified, which is nearly the same thing. That certification process began the day after the caucuses and is expected to wrap up this week, yielding a final, official vote tally.
On caucus night, party officials in each of Iowa's 1,774 precincts were required to fill out what is known as Form E. The form contained the official count for each candidate in the caucus. It was signed by precinct officials on caucus night and witnessed by representatives of the various campaigns. It is the official vote total for each precinct caucus.
When that work was finished, precinct officials called in the results to party headquarters in Des Moines. It was on the basis of that called-in information that GOP officials announced the winner in the early morning hours of Jan. 4. But as it always does, the process of receiving the results by phone opened up room for error, with the possibility that someone misspoke or misheard the results for a particular caucus.
Party rules require local officials to send in the actual Form Es within two weeks of the caucus. (They use the U.S. Mail, so it can take a while.) Then state party officials begin counting them from the original documents, and not from the phoned-in results. If there are any differences between the Form E totals and the numbers reported by county officials via telephone on caucus night, the Form E figures, which were approved on the scene, are assumed to be correct.
In the past two weeks, party employees have been working nearly nonstop to certify the results from each of Iowa's 1,774 precincts. During that time, they have regularly briefed campaign representatives on what's going on. In the next few days, they are expected to finish tallying and certifying the last Form Es and come up with official certified results.
The final numbers will be different from those released on caucus night. One campaign source says the vote count as of midday Monday showed Santorum ahead by 80-something votes. If that number holds through certification of the last precincts, Santorum will win. Of course, there is always the possibility that some of the final precincts will contain discrepancies that put Romney back on top. It's just not clear.
What is clear is that the certification process has changed vote totals in the past. In 2008, for example, early unofficial results showed Mike Huckabee winning the GOP caucuses with 40,841 votes. Huckabee's official, certified total turned out to be 40,954. Likewise, Mitt Romney's unofficial 2008 total was 29,949; his certified total was 30,021. Those were small changes that did not affect the outcome of the '08 race. If similar changes happen this time, the winner could be different.
No one maintains that Romney decisively won the caucuses. But the political conversation requires a winner for each contest, and in recent days the impression has set in that Romney won Iowa; as his campaign says, "a win's a win." Indeed, Romney's Iowa "victory" has become part of the argument for declaring Romney the winner of the Republican race overall.
But there is another count coming, and it could change the way the Iowa caucuses are remembered. If that happens, could it change the rest of the GOP race, too?
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.