Santorum's Iowa Dead End

The former Pennsylvania senator is rising rapidly at just the right time in Iowa. Andrew Romano on what it means—and how far he can take it.

Charlie Neibergall / AP Photo

PERRY, IOWA—Rick Santorum was early.

Now, just so you realize how remarkable this is, let me remind you: Rick Santorum is a politician. In fact, he is what is known out on the trail as a “career” politician, having worked in Pennsylvania politics in one form or another, including stints as a U.S. congressman and U.S senator, since the tender age of 28. And politicians not only never run early—they are always, always late.

But lo and behold, there Santorum was, standing on a dark wooden staircase in the lobby of the historic Hotel Pattee in Perry, Iowa, getting ready to deliver his 377th Hawkeye State stump speech of the cycle, at 11:24 in the morning—a full six minutes before his scheduled start time.

And this, as much as anything else, is why Rick Santorum—a man who was stuck at 4 percent in the local polls as recently as one month ago, and is still stuck at 4 percent nationally—is going to win the Iowa caucuses on Tuesday.

You read me right: “win.” Yes, I am aware that it rarely, if ever, pays to make predictions in politics, especially during a primary season as dizzying and surreal as the one we’re currently experiencing. And OK, fine, I admit that I am running on three hours of sleep, which becomes particularly debilitating when one forgets to eat both breakfast and lunch. But foolish (or famished) or not, I’m going to stick with this one: Rick Santorum will win this year’s Iowa caucuses—one way or another.

The first way is the obvious way: by winning the most votes. This is a distinct possibility. Right now, Santorum’s poll numbers are rising so rapidly that pollsters can’t keep up. Take the legendarily accurate Des Moines Register poll, which was released on New Year’s Eve and showed Mitt Romney leading the pack with 24 percent of the vote, Ron Paul finishing second with 22 percent, and Santorum third with 15 percent. A good result for the Pennsylvanian, but not spectacular—unless you consider the fact that Santorum’s share of the vote doubled over the four days that voters were surveyed, bringing him within 1 point of Romney on the final day the Register was in the field. A more recent poll by PPP, meanwhile, gives Santorum 18 percent of the vote, placing him in a three-way statistical tie with Romney (19 percent) and Paul (20 percent). What’s more, PPP found that Santorum is the preferred second choice of supporters of Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Perry, meaning that while Romney and Paul are already brushing up against their respective ceilings, Santorum still has room to grow—namely by poaching voters from less viable candidates at the 11th hour.

But even if Santorum doesn’t win the most votes, he will almost certainly “win” the Iowa caucuses. The reason? He’s the freshest story. For better or worse, media expectations really do matter come caucus time. Everyone anticipated that Romney will do well, including Romney, who boasted Monday evening in Marion that he’s “going to win this thing.” Same goes for Paul, who has the most robust organization in the state and has long polled in the double digits. But Santorum is new. Santorum is fresh. And Santorum has not been covered to death. There’s a reason the guy is suddenly surrounded by 10-foot-wide semicircles of reporters and cameramen at every stop—a scrum that on Monday included CBS anchor Scott Pelley, New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, Politico power broker Mike Allen, and hard-hitting ABC reporter Jake Tapper. By sneaking up and surprising the media, the former senator has ensured that he will get far more gee-whiz coverage after Iowa than either of his rivals, regardless of whether he technically defeats them on caucus night. And that, in turn, will give him the biggest immediate boost in the GOP’s heated battle for anti-Romney money and momentum—a battle that is even more important, at this point, than the party’s nitty-gritty battle for delegates.

So how did Santorum pull it off? It’s an interesting question—and one that may actually reveal more about his weaknesses, going forward, than his strengths. By following Santorum around on Monday, from the speech in Perry to a meet-and-greet at the Pizza Ranch in nearby Boone, I discovered that the secret of his last-minute success is pretty simple: he’s running a vanity campaign. And by that I don’t mean his own vanity; I mean Iowans’ vanity. He arrives early. He stays late. He doesn’t have anywhere he’d rather be. On the stairs in Perry, Santorum contrasted his retail-heavy approach to the caucuses—it’s been “all about ordinary voters all around the state having ordinary conversations over ordinary cups of coffee” he said—with the rest of the GOP’s debate-centric strategy. In Boone, he made sure to mention that he’s visited 37 different Pizza Ranches in his travels, which, he noted, have taken him to all of Iowa’s 99 counties. And in both places, he repeatedly framed Tuesday’s big decision as a referendum on the importance of Iowa itself.

“The pundits say it’s a two-person race,” he said. “But it’s the race that you make it. You’re the voters. You fought to be first. Follow what you know is right. You have the opportunity to lead here."

“Don’t settle for less than what this country needs,” he said. “Don’t trust a group of people who’ve gotten it wrong six times before. Do what you believe is best. Be bold.”

“You can tell the world that money doesn’t buy Iowa,” he said. “You can show them that hard work, good ideas, and strong values do.”

It isn’t hard to see why this message is resonating with the 75 percent of Iowans who have repeatedly refused to support Mitt Romney: it’s totally flattering. The point of the Iowa caucuses isn’t to support the candidate the media says we should support! It’s to support the candidate we want to support! And who better to support than the man who’s been here for the last year, taking all of our questions, shaking all of our hands. The guy who thinks that paying attention to Iowa is important. The guy who, if he wins, will prove that paying attention to Iowa is important. He’s a foreign-policy hawk, like us. He’s a staunch social conservative, like us. And now that his numbers are rising, he won’t be a wasted vote—maybe, just maybe, a vote for him will matter.

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Or, as Santorum himself put it at the Pizza Ranch: “If you vote for me you will send a clear message to this country as to what you believe."

The problem, of course, is that the vanity approach will work only once. If Santorum wants to compete after Iowa, he will have to raise millions of dollars in a matter of days. He will have to establish insta-organizations in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida. And he will have to connect with whole new swaths of the electorate. In Perry, he signaled that he’s already looking ahead. “Who is the person who has proven that, with a conservative record, he is able to attract independents and Democrats?” he asked. “Has Mitt Romney done that? He never ran as a conservative. Rick Perry ran as a conservative in Texas. How hard is that? There is only one person in this race who is a conservative and who is able to attract those votes.”

It’s a good line, but it’s hard to imagine that it will be enough to sustain Santorum—even with an Iowa victory under his belt. Unfortunately, his supporters seem to agree. As I was leaving the Pizza Ranch in Boone, I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation between two recent Santorum converts. One was a schoolteacher; the other was a farmer. They’d both supported Herman Cain and struggled to find a replacement in the weeks after he was forced out of the race—until Santorum started to climb in the polls. Now they were ready to caucus for the former senator.

“My goodness,” the teacher said, looking at the massive crowd struggling to squeeze through the door. “What a change this must be for him.”

“I heard on the radio that he raised more money in the last week than in the last six months,” the farmer said.

“Wow," said the teacher.

“Yes,” said the farmer. “Although [former Arkansas governor Mike] Huckabee won Iowa, and he didn’t go on to win the nomination.”

They both paused, looking sad.

“Well,” the teacher finally said. “At least voting for Santorum gives us a voice. At least it lets us say that we like people with good, solid Christian values. And hopefully the winner takes notice, whoever he is.”