What Rick Santorum’s Puerto Rico sideshow tells us about his campaign

at 01:10 PM ET, 03/19/2012

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum spent several days in Puerto Rico over the past week but won only 8 percent of the vote and no delegates in Sunday’s primary, a result that suggests that his visit amounted to both a colossal waste of time and a considerable strategic mistake.


Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, right, flashes a thumbs up at a crowd of supporters following a campaign rally in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Thursday March 15, 2012. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo)
“Insurgencies live and die on momentum and I’m sure that drove their decision-making, but the failure to recognize the structural nature of the Puerto Rico primary indicates impulse decisions instead of cold-eyed analysis,” said Brad Todd, a Republican media consultant who is unaffiliated in the 2012 presidential contest.

For what’s it worth, Santorum and his team have given little explanation of why he decided to contest Puerto Rico. In his victory speech — following wins in Alabama and Mississippi last Tuesday — Santorum said he was headed to Puerto Rico because “we want to make sure everybody knows that we are campaigning wherever there are delegates because we are going to win this nomination before that convention.”

Hogan Gidley, a spokesman for Santorum, told the Fix that “Rick has many longstanding friendships in Puerto Rico and had made some early decisions to spend some time campaigning there.” Gidley added that “if we would’ve known that Mitt Romney was going to so blatantly pander to the Puerto Rican people and tell them they don’t have to learn English to become a state — we might have rethought the strategy.”

Viewed objectively, it’s hard to see how Santorum thought he might take any delegates out of Puerto Rico. Romney had the entire political establishment locked up — although Santorum did have the endorsement of former Cleveland Indians great Carlos Baerga(!) — and because of delegate allocation rules seemed nearly certain to claim all 20 delegates at stake on Sunday. (Puerto Rico was a winner-take-all contest if any candidate won over 50 percent of the vote.)

Santorum took a bad situation and made it worse by allegedly asserting — and then insisting he was misqoted— that if Puerto Rico wanted to become a U.S. state that its populace needed to learn English. (The picture of him sunbathing shirtless, though not his fault, didn’t help Santorum’s cause much either.)

All of that took attention away from Illinois, which is set to vote on Tuesday and where Santorum, theoretically, had a chance to pull off an upset over former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — a chance that now looks to have faded.

The Puerto Rico debacle was the latest in a string of problematic strategic decisions by Santorum’s campaign. Among them:

* Continuing to contest the allocation of a single delegate in Michigan. Santorum trails Romney by several hundred delegates and while his team argues the Michigan fight is a matter of principle, it’s still only one delegate.

* The failure to stay on an economic populist message in the run-up to the Michigan primary. Santorum had real momentum heading into the Feb. 28 vote and had he spent the final weeks before that vote talking about his blue-collar roots and Romney’s wealth, he likely would have won. What did he talk about? The fact that President Obama was a “snob” and how President Kennedy’s separation of church and state speech made him sick to his stomach. Um, not good.

* His — and the campaign’s — inability to organize in early states. Santorum didn’t make the ballot in Virginia at all and didn’t fill out full delegate slates in Ohio or Illinois. While it’s somewhat understandable that an underfunded campaign can’t cover all of its bases, Santorum is now locked in a delegate fight. His organizational failures mean that he effectively tied one hand behind his own back before stepping into that ring.

Santorum has long prided himself on running a lean campaign, insisting that even after he became a top-tier candidate that he had no plans to build out his campaign team. (He has added some staff at the national level including spokespeople Gidley and Alice Stewart.)

But, lean campaigns tend not to work for a reason. And that reason is because a small group of advisers that are close to the candidate at all times may not have the full strategic perspective required to make more cold-blooded decisions in regards the campaign. (Worth noting: Romney spent his weekend campaigning in Illinois, not Puerto Rico.)

“Santorum still doesn’t have a real campaign team, consistent message or a strategic plan,” said Republican strategist Ed Rollins, who managed the presidential bid of Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann. “Their message each week becomes the answers they give to media questions and that is how it gets entangled in things he shouldn’t be talking about.”

Santorum now seems headed for a convincing loss on Tuesday in Illinois, his third straight defeat in a large Midwestern state where polling suggested victory was possible. Given his delegate deficit, Santorum needed to pull off a win in one of those three to show that the math isn’t determinative and that Romney’s inevitability isn’t, well, inevitable.

That Santorum looks likely to go 0-3 in those critical states is a much a reflection on a series of poor strategic choices on his behalf as on any inherent strengthening from Romney. Put simply: If and when Rick Santorum comes up short in this race, he’ll only have himself to blame.

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