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Post Leadership
Posted at 10:50 AM ET, 01/04/2012

How Rick Santorum can ride Iowa’s momentum

There are many reasons Rick Santorum succeeded in virtually tying Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucus Tuesday night. After sifting through the slate of candidates, the state’s evangelical voters finally decided he paired well with their staunch social conservative views. His timing was good, getting his turn in the media spotlight just before votes were cast. He got endorsements from Jim Bob Duggar and Rupert Murdoch.

But what really earned Santorum his near-win, falling behind the frontrunner by just eight votes, was his old-fashioned shoe leather approach. With no polling operation in place, the former Pennsylvania senator worked his way through all 99 Iowa counties without a speech writer or security detail. He turned his speeches into town-hall style events that let him conduct his own first-hand focus groups. His campaign trail transportation? Not a tricked-out luxury coach or a fractional jet, but a Dodge pick-up truck.

But what got him here likely won’t get him there. As story after story today is sure to pick apart, Santorum is still seen as a long shot in New Hampshire, where his ground game is small, less in-tune with the electorate, and running out of time. He has just seven staffers in the Granite State, which holds its primary in a mere six days. His social issues bona fides aren’t as popular with New Hampshire voters, who currently are giving him just 3 percent of their nods in the polls. The new phase of the primary season won’t allow him the time for the sort of meet-and-greet approach that did so well for him in Iowa.

So what’s a candidate to do? Politically, of course, he’ll need to rev up his fundraising machine, amp up the advertising, and hit his political opponents where it hurts. He’ll need to scale his operation quickly and efficiently to take advantage of the money that’s likely to come in. And he’ll need to prepare himself for the increased scrutiny from the media, who has until recently largely ignored the candidate who long dwelled in the second tier.

But as a leader, he’ll need to do what anyone would when presiding over an organization that has a sudden and surprising wind at their backs. Santorum, with his senior team, will need to strike the right balance between calm preparedness and energetic action, preventing his staffers from panicking over the sudden surge while at the same time capitalizing on the momentum. Clear-headed decision-making will be absolutely critical, as the sudden influx of cash and attention could easily prompt disarray in a campaign unaccustomed to having either one. And he will need to learn from the mistakes of those who’ve been in his shoes before—namely Mike Huckabee, who finished first in Iowa in 2008 before faltering badly in New Hampshire.

Leading a dispersed cast of campaign volunteers and staffers is a monumental challenge for any candidate. Doing so amid a sudden inflow of cash and coverage can make things either a little bit easier, if one is able to put the momentum to work, or much, much harder, if it creates chaos or confusion. It’s hard for leaders of even the best-managed organizations to scale quickly and efficiently. Doing so amid a necessary change in campaign strategy, the imminent deadlines of political primaries and the brutal media glare of a presidential campaign will be exponentially more so.

 

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