We Won't Know Who Really Won Iowa Until June

Mitt Romney won the Iowa caucuses by a mere eight votes in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, but what does he actually get? Not much more than bragging rights and the spectacle. The delegate allocation from Iowa is still very much undecided.

We won't know the real winner until Iowa selects its Republican National Convention delegates in June, and the possibility remains that Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, or another candidate, will earn that distinction.

Read more about Romney's razor-thin victory and what it means.

Iowa will send 28 delegates to the August Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. To win the nomination, a candidate will need the support of 1,144 delegates out of a 2,286 total, meaning Iowa's delegates amount to 2.5 percent of the number needed to win.

But a candidate like Paul, whose campaign has emphasized state- and county-level organizing in places other campaigns have all but ignored, could possibly walk away with Iowa's delegates by knowing Iowa's rules and pitching the right battles.

All this will be moot if a front-runner sprints ahead of his competition in the next two months. But we'll have to revisit the Iowa outcome, in a delegate-counting context, if the GOP race progresses into a dragged-out trench war.

GOP presidential candidates may find themselves tussling over delegates deep into the spring as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton did in 2008, if Republican Party officials have their way. New party rules, adopted in June to mimic the Democratic system that prolonged the 2008 Obama-Clinton battle, have prodded most states to allocate national-convention delegates proportionally, in some form or another, placing a higher priority on organizing across the country and potentially meaning a longer journey to the nomination.

Iowa, unlike most states, will leave all of its delegates "unbound," free to support any presidential candidate. And Iowa won't choose its delegates until June 15 and 16, when the state GOP holds its congressional-district and state conventions. (See this explainer for more on the way Iowa selects its delegates.)

If the 2012 primary becomes a race for delegates, Tuesday night's vote will mean less, and winning Iowa could come down to organizing at and before those conventions in June. If the race is still competitive as June draws near, Iowa GOP officials will start to talk more about the votes for delegates. "When we get to the [March 10] county conventions, we'll start to skinny that down. That's when we'll start to have some discussion," an official with an Iowa GOP county organization told ABC before the caucuses.