The results in the GOP caucuses in Iowa should come in methodically, if reasonably quickly. And the winner could conceivably be known as early as 9 or so ET on Tuesday. However, if there’s an extended tangle at the top among Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum (or another candidate) -- which there very well could be -- the process could become protracted.
In the meantime, here are a few areas in Iowa to keep an eye on as the returns trickle in.
1) Polk County (Des Moines). Geography doesn’t matter in Iowa. No county or region is weighted more than any other. That means it comes down to sheer numbers, and no place has more potential caucusgoers than here, in the state’s most populous county. In 2008, Mike Huckabee won the county by 13 points over Romney. If Romney shows strength here, the state could be his for the taking. Conversely, if Rick Santorum shows Huck-like numbers, Romney could be in a for a tough fight.
2) Woodbury County (Sioux City). This was Romney country four years ago; he won the county by 16 points over Huckabee. The Massachusetts governor did well in the central part of the state and along both eastern and western borders--and Romney will need to do well here again as huge swaths of the more rural parts of the state could go for Santorum. Also track Pottawattamie County in the southwestern part of the state (Council Bluffs) for similar reasons.
3) Dallas County (suburban Des Moines). Keep a close watch on this, Iowa’s fastest-growing county, on the western edge of the state capital. Romney and Huckabee split it down the middle in 2008.
4, 5) Story County/Johnson County (Ames/Iowa City). These counties contain the state’s two largest universities, Iowa State and Iowa, which means Ron Paul, who enjoys wide support among young caucusgoers, could be a player. But at the same time, will the students be on campus, or still at home? And will they caucus at all? Last time around, Huckabee won Story County, but it was also one of the places where Paul did well. Romney took Johnson.
6) Linn County (Cedar Rapids). Iowa’s second-most-populous county barely went for Romney over Huckabee in 2008. If Romney opens up a wide lead here, it’s a sign that he could be in a commanding position.
7) Sioux County (northwestern Iowa). Mike Huckabee dominated this part of the state and social conservatives such as Santorum are relying on areas like these to compete with Romney’s more urban appeal. If Santorum isn’t embraced by voters here, it’s a sign that he could have a disappointing evening.