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Rick Santorum has an enthusiasm problem too

at 06:30 AM ET, 03/21/2012

All the talk about the lack of enthusiasm about Mitt Romney misses one key fact: Rick Santorum’s supporters may actually be just as lukewarm about their guy.

The last several Republican primaries have shown a subtle trend in the Republican presidential race, in which Santorum’s supporters say they are about as excited as Romney’s supporters — i.e. not very.
Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) speaks during a campaign rally Monday in Dixon, Ill. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

And it goes a long way to explain why Santorum hasn’t been able to catch fire, even as Newt Gingrich’s campaign has basically fallen off the map.

Few would dispute that a central feature of the Republican presidential race has been a longing for a candidate that conservatives would get excited about. And Santorum has certainly done the best job of filling that void. But even as he has taken on the role, there has been a sense that he hasn’t totally exploited the opening.

Santorum’s fundraising has surged, but it hasn’t gone gangbusters. And even as Santorum has clearly become the conservative alternative in the race, conservatives haven’t overwhelmingly flocked to him, even as Gingrich has faltered. (Gingrich finished fourth in Illinois with just 8 percent.)

All in all, it paints the picture of a guy who isn’t quite filling the vacuum.

Results from Tuesday’s primary in Illinois and last week’s primary in Mississippi show why. Exit polls show as many or more of Santorum’s supporters say they were voting for him “with reservations” as those who say they “strongly favor” their candidate. Not exactly the picture of a conservative darling.

The trend continued in Illinois on Tuesday, where exit polls show Santorum garnering about equal percentages from voters “with reservations” as from voters who feel strongly about their candidate (about 15 percent from each category).

But it wasn’t the first time.

In Mississippi, more than half of voters said they were strongly supportive of their candidate. Santorum took only about one-quarter of those votes--fewer than Romney AND Gingrich. Santorum’s win in Mississippi, in fact, came because of less-enthusiastic voters.

Even on Super Tuesday two weeks ago, Santorum’s support split evenly among voters who were excited about the candidate and those who weren’t.

Romney, meanwhile, drew slightly more strong supporters than lukewarm supporters in some recent contests. About 13 percent of Alabama voters were strong Romney supporters, for example, compared to 10 percent who said they had some reservations but still voted Romney. In Mississippi, 16 percent supported Romney strongly, while 12 percent voted for him with reservations. The ratio wasn’t as good in Illinois, where slightly more Romney voters held reservations than those who strongly supported Romney.

But we already knew that about Romney. Contrasting Romney’s numbers with Santorum’s shows that the former Pennsylvania senator has his own enthusiasm problem. And it may actually be as serious — or more so — than Romney’s.

Fundraising update: Tuesday was also FEC day, which means we learned some more about how the top campaigns and super PACs are sustaining themselves. The highlights (all the numbers are from February):

* The super PACs supporting Gingrich and Santorum appear to be short on cash, with Santorum’s banking just $365,000 at the end of February and Gingrich’s relying heavily on multi-million-dollar donations from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his family that may or may not continue.

* Santorum and his super PAC combined had about $3 million cash on hand, compared to nearly $18 million for Romney and his top super PAC.

* The top Democratic super PAC, Priorities USA, raised $1.5 million of its $2 million from comedian Bill Maher ($1 million) and California businessman Kareem Ahmed ($500,000).

* The top GOP super PAC, American Crossroads, also had a slow month — by its standards — bringing in $3.4 million. The super PAC banked $23.6 million, though, which is far more than its Democratic counterparts.

* The Democratic National Committee outraised the Republican National Committee $15.4 million to $11.3 million, but the RNC won if you deduct the $8 million DNC transfer from its joint fundraising committee with President Obama.

* Obama’s campaign has about $85 million cash on hand, and the DNC has $21 million, for a total of $106 million.

Rep. Upton gets an assist: The conservative outside group American Action Network is going up with a six-figure ad campaign to support Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) in his primary.

Upton, a member of the bipartisan “supercommittee” tasked with finding a solution to the debt limit fight, faces a repeat primary challenge from former state representative Jack Hoogendyk, who held Upton to 57 percent of the vote in 2010.

The campaign includes cable ads playing up Upton’s fiscal conservatism, as well as online ads and mail.

“Congress will soon consider budget reforms, where Upton has fought tax increases on families and small business,” the ad says. “Upton voted for a Balanced Budget Amendment with cut, cap, and balance. And Upton is a key player in the ongoing fight with big government to build the Keystone pipeline.”

AAN previously ran some ads propping up Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who also faces a conservative primary challenger.

Fixbits:

Romney is coming to Maryland.

Santorum questions Obama’s decision to let his daughter, Malia, travel to Mexico.

Romney has contributed to both candidates in the Arizona GOP Senate primary, even though one of the candidates, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), has actually spent time supporting Romney.

Automated pollster Rasmussen Reports shows Sen. Dean Heller (R) leading Rep. Shelley Berkley (D) 47 percent to 40 percent.

The National Republican Congressional Committee raised $12 million at a fundraising dinner keynoted by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) on Tuesday.

Republican Albuquerque City Councilman Dan Lewis drops out of the race to replace Senate candidate Rep. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.).

Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) calls China “Uncle Chang.”

Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) continues to bark up the birther tree.

Must-reads:

Senate race turns testy between Mack and LeMieux” — Marc Caputo and Katie Sanders, Miami Herald

Illinois could have been even worse for Santorum” — John Bailey, NBC News

Can You Win a Campaign Without Conducting Polls?” — Sasha Issenberg, Slate

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