The Santorum Surge

by John Sides on January 4, 2012 · 4 comments

in Campaigns and elections

The Pizza Ranch in Altoona, Iowa sits amidst a long series of strip malls.  At 5 pm on Caucus Eve, an hour before Santorum appears, Carl Cameron is the first person you encounter inside—deeply tanned with pancake make-up, talking seriously into his microphone.  The second is a man selling Santorum buttons.  3 for $10.

It’s early, and there are more reporters than Santorum supporters.  A room has been set aside for his remarks.  Over the doorway to this room is a sign indigenous to the Pizza Ranch: “Faith, Family, Friends.”  No apparent relation to Santorum’s “Faith, Family, and Freedom Tour.”  The Pizza Ranch does indeed have a ranch-y decor: rusted tractor seats and farm tools, pictures of John Wayne.  Incongruously, the rustic vibe is interrupted by the world’s most sophisticated soda fountain, with a touch-screen screen, 20 different Coca-Cola products, and the ability to include shots of lime, orange, vanilla, cherry, and cherry vanilla.  This makes up for the salad bar, which includes more cheese than vegetables.

Initially, I am a little sad: it looks like a thin crowd.  But by the time Santorum enters at 6:03—button-down shirt, v-neck sweater vest, “Ladies and gentlemen, the next President of the United States!”—the place is standing room only.  I can’t get into the room where he gives his statement, although I can watch it on C-SPAN on the Pizza Ranch’s flat-screen TV even as I can see him through the window into the room.  Later he comes into the main dining area and speaks to the rest of us through a megaphone.  It makes his voice sound tinny.  He thanks his wife and kids (6 of the 7 are here with him in Iowa) and he thanks Iowans and compliments Iowans for their thoughtfulness and dedication to the task of picking presidents.  Of course, voters always seem smarter when you’re surging in the polls.  ”We pick Rick,” the crowd chants.

Later that night, we’ll go to a Romney rally in a warehouse in Clive, IA.  From the moment we enter, the professionalism of his campaign is obvious: big banner (“Believe in America”), American and Iowan flags flanking it,  floodlights, press gallery, risers for the TV cameras, tall ladders for the photographers, loud music (Van Halen’s “Right Here, Right Now,” “Life is a Highway,” obligatory Toby Keith), blue Romney t-shirts everywhere, homemade signs (“Iowa Picks Corn and Presidents”), Romney staffers moving through the crowd handing out business cards in case anyone needs a ride to the caucus.  There are not one but two mic checks—not quite triple-checking, but close.  John Thune introduces him.

Santorum had none of that.  But, as I’m writing this, apparently it didn’t matter.  Santorum ’s vote share will likely be 8-10 points higher than his Iowa poll standing.  The surge was real.

So where did it come from?  Four things mattered, I think.

First, Santorum did supply something that other candidates could not: sincere social conservatism that wasn’t complicated by earlier moral failings (Gingrich, Cain) or missteps in the campaign (Perry).  I’ve heard Romney and Bachmann and Paul and Santorum speak over the past two days.  And of course there are common themes in their speeches.  But Santorum still sounds a bit different.  He doesn’t digress into policy details like Romney.  He doesn’t ramble through semi-connected topics like Paul. (From my notes from earlier today: Kelly Clarkson endorsement, endorse and defend Constitution, need permission from Congress for war, money, inflation, cost of college education, Founders, silver and gold, Austrian economics, Federal Reserve, lobbyists, bank bailout, Internet privacy.  And this was a speech to the high school seniors of Valley High School in West Des Moines.)

Indeed, maybe better than anything Santorum said is what was said on his behalf by David Ortega at the caucus I attended tonight (Polk Count , Altoona 4 Precinct).  Within 60 seconds, Ortega mentioned Santorum’s support for “strong families” and the “traditional American family” and a ban on partial-birth abortion and limits on stem cell research.   The other candidates simply didn’t mention those things in the speeches I hear.  Indeed, the caucusgoers who spoke on their behalf in Altoona didn’t mention them either.  Santorum may have stood apart in this way.

Second, he never experienced the intense scrutiny that came with the earlier boomlets of Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich, and Paul.  His surge came at just the right time—that is, late enough that it was hard for the media or the other candidates to question him.

Third, he obviously laid the groundwork with his extensive travel in Iowa.  Whether candidate appearances are necessary to do well in Iowa is really an open question—there is much more folklore here than hard data.  But it didn’t hurt.

Finally, however, we must account for the the timing of the surge.  None of the other factors can explain it.  His political views didn’t change suddenly in December.  Nor did his campaign tactics.  So we need to identify a factor that did change—one that coincided with his surge and one that would have provided new information to voters that might have led them to change their minds.  Santorum’s poll numbers were mostly in the single digits until a CNN poll from 12/21-27, in which he garnered 16%.  In the poll previous to this, conducted from 12/19-21, he garnered 4%.  In the polls conducted afterwards, his numbers range from 10-18%.  What changed?

One possibility: on December 22, Santorum received the endorsement of Iowa Christian conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats.  This was made known partly via robocalls paid for by a super-PAC called “Leaders for Families.”   The endorsement had some accompanying controversy, but that may not have been as salient as the endorsement itself.  It could have then keyed the support of like-minded Iowans—especially because Santorum had established credibility both as a social conservative and as someone who cared a lot about Iowa.

The second person who spoke on Santorum’s behalf in the Altoona caucus I attended—and Santorum was the only one who had 2 speakers—called him a “warrior who can win.”  And he won that caucus, with 83 votes to Paul’s 61 and Romney’s 50.  But the Santorum surge should prove short-lived.  I wouldn’t expect him to repeat this success in New Hampshire.  A possible victory in South Carolina shouldn’t be followed by many others, or even any others.   But his surge should  help winnow the field—Gingrich out?  Bachmann out?—and prolong the de facto coronation of the nominee.

{ 4 comments }

Ray Harmon January 4, 2012 at 2:16 am

Great points–seems to make the most sense. He’s certainly pooled the evangelicals/social conservatives at the last minute (would’ve been surprising for a Catholic to do that even ten years ago). Cable news spent the night on Ron Paul (the other evangelical fave) instead of really delving into where Santorum’s unexpected 11th hour surge came from.

Unrelated note: my fiance is quick to point out to me that your website header features an ape, not a monkey. It’s a point of great and constant consternation for him. Cheers!

Jonathan January 4, 2012 at 9:02 am

“The mission of this blog is described in our inaugural post. And, technically, an orangutan is an ape, not a monkey. ”

Great stuff John! This is the kind of stuff that should serve as a great example to journalists covering the campaign.

Matt January 4, 2012 at 10:07 am

Another possibility for the surge’s timing is that it is less a function of changes in Santorum’s profile in late December than it was a change in the profile of his opponents. Once the negative ads and gaffes knocked off the other conservative candidates, he was what was left. The joys of compositional data-looking for independent causes is hard…

Michael S. Lewis-Beck January 4, 2012 at 7:35 pm

Hi John,

Good diagnostics. I want to focus on your third point – laying the groundwork in the field. Santorum went to each of the 99 counties, campaigning hard for months. Look at the state map where he came in first. He is all over the state there. Old style campaigning seems to be making a difference here. One concern I have about why the polls did not pick this up is sampling. It seems possible that his support in some of the remote counties was missed as a result of sampling error, i.e., samples too small, or poor call lists.

Thanks for the thoughtful piece.

MLB

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