Inside the Rick Santorum surge

at 11:09 AM ET, 12/29/2011

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum is the hottest candidate in Iowa, surging into contention with just five days before the first-in-the-nation caucuses, according to a new CNN/Time poll.

What explains Santorum’s surge? And can he keep moving on up? The first question is easier to answer than the second.


Republican presidential candidate former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks to local residents during a campaign stop at USA Furniture and Bedding, Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2011, in Dubuque, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Of all the candidates running for president, Santorum has taken the most traditional path to success in Iowa; he’s absolutely lavished the state with attention. Santorum has been working the state relentlessly for the past year, having visited all 99 counties and done the sort of small-group gatherings that Iowans have, at least in past years, responded well to.

“I think of him as the tortoise in the tortoise and hare fable,” said Becky Beach, a longtime Iowa operative who is unaffiliated in this race. “He’s been steadfast throughout the Iowa process and I think the benefits of his strategy will pay off for him.”

For months (and months), all of Santorum’s hard work didn’t amount to much. He finished fourth in the Ames Straw Poll in August and watched — seemingly helplessly — while the likes of Rep. Michele Bachmann, businessman Herman Cain and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich soared past him in Iowa polling.

But, then two things happened.

First, social conservatives started jumping off the Gingrich bandwagon and, as they have done repeatedly in this election, starting looking for a new thing. Santorum is the last new thing out there with the exception of former Utah governor Jon Huntsman who has been openly dismissive of Iowa and the caucuses. (“They pick corn in Iowa,” said Huntsman this morning. “They pick presidents in New Hampshire.” Ouch.)

Second, Santorum — and a super PAC aligned with him — finally cobbled together the money to make ad buys in the state, commercials that reminded people of his social conservatism on issues like abortion. The ads also play up Santorum’s large family (our favorite is the “pop up video” style spot the campaign put up just before Christmas); “It’s a big part of who he is,” explained Santorum media consultant John Brabender.

If Santorum’s surge is relatively easily understood, his path to victory in Iowa is far tougher to see.

Dig into the guts of the CNN/Time poll — and we love us some gut-digging when it comes to polls — and there is a single question that gets at the heart of the limits of Santorum’s appeal in Iowa and beyond.

Asked which candidate had the best chance of beating President Obama next fall, 41 percent of Iowa Republicans named former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Just four — yes, four — percent chose Santorum.

While we are skeptical of ascribing too much strategic voting to caucus-goers, the overarching goal of the Republican party over the next year will be beating President Obama. And so, electability concerns may well matter more this time around than in a race like 2008 when there was no sitting Democratic incumbent in the White House.

Given that reality, Santorum would need to coalesce large chunks of the social conservative vote behind him — ala Mike Huckabee in 2008 — in the final five days of the race in order to seriously challenge Romney and Texas Rep. Ron Paul for the top spot in Iowa.

Dave Roederer, a veteran Iowa Republican operative, thinks that won’t happen. “There is no sign of rallying around a social conservative,” he said. “Anything this year is possible but I don’t see anything above third place” for Santorum.

Sara Fagen, a former Bush White House political director and Iowa native, agreed. “It will be very tough for him to pull out a first place finish,” she said of Santorum. “But, considering he’s been an afterthought for most of the race, a top three finish would be a big win.”

Iowa is all about expectations. And, Santorum now seems certain to over-perform the admittedly low ones that had dogged his campaign up until now.

Still, don’t make too much of the Santorum surge in Iowa. He remains well behind in other early voting states and is badly underfunded as compared to the frontunners.

 
Read what others are saying