“Inevitable” Romney Meets the Santorum Surprise in Iowa

By Al Giordano

In The Field’s December 22 analysis of tomorrow’s Republican presidential caucuses in Iowa, which was largely dedicated to how the media and its pundits underestimate former House speaker Newt Gingrich’s chances to rebound, I inserted this placeholder paragraph:

“Before concluding, I’ll say a few words about former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. He could still surprise in Iowa. With the graceless falls of Bachman and Perry, it’s now between Santorum and Gingrich as to who can possibly coalesce the Evangelical right behind one candidate in Iowa. But that would require a sudden Santorum surge in the New Year’s Des Moines Register poll.”

Well, that poll – the quadrennial gold standard when it comes to fixing Iowa caucus expectations – came out on New Year’s Eve. And it shows exactly that: the fickle grassroots Christian conservative base of the Republican Party has indeed begun to coalesce behind an Anti-Romney, but his name isn’t Gingrich, it’s former Pennsylvania US Senator Rick Santorum.

The Field now projects that Santorum will win the Iowa caucuses on Tuesday. But Caveat Emptor, not everybody agrees: Former Massachusetts governor Romney still leads in most polls and in the aggregate average of all polls. US Rep. Ron Paul of Texas led in the Public Policy Polling survey taken Saturday and Sunday. Nate Silver’s computers give Romney a 38 percent chance of Iowa victory, Paul a 34 percent chance Santorum a 24 percent shot (that’s up from 12 percent yesterday and will likely rise again overnight; yes, we can also accurately project what the projectors will say as reality sinks in) and Gingrich a 3 percent dark horse possibility. Santorum is also the only GOP candidate in Iowa that has not led in a single public opinion poll in all of 2011. But I think he’s going to win it, and I’ll tell you why.

The “Romney is inevitable” script is oh so reminiscent of what happened on the Democratic side four years ago, when the pundits told us that then-US Senator Hillary Clinton was a lead-pipe cinch to become the party’s nominee. Romney has benefited greatly from some of the same factors that drove the Hillary-as-Frontrunner mythology: the coalesced economic support from Wall Street interests, air support from the media organizations they own, and a large pool of primary rivals to divide those Democrats less enthused about her (remember that Obama had to contend with former US Sen. John Edwards, then-New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, and US Senators Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, none of them political neophytes, all good debaters, before he emerged, in Iowa, as that cycle’s Anti-Clinton).

In 2008, Obama did emerge, though, mainly because his campaign resurrected the seemingly ancient and forgotten practice of community organizing, both in his door-to-door grassroots field efforts, the intensive training of his volunteers in those arts, and the conversion of the organizing concept to what was then a new phenomenon in political campaign fundraising: the primacy of the small donor, multiplied hundreds of thousands of times and oiled by the speed of the Internet.

While none of the Republican candidates in 2012 have come close to the level of grassroots gravitas of the Obama ’08 campaign prior to Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, we have to remember two things:

First, that prior to Obama’s emergence, the American leaders in grassroots organizing were not on the left or Democratic side of the spectrum. It was the Christian Right, with its Sunday church pulpits, phone banking, direct mail fundraising and house parties that had been the phantom field organization of the Republican party presidential victories in 1980, 1984, 1988, 2000 and, again in 2004, when that was the key factor in defending then-president George W. Bush’s reelection from Democrat John Kerry in key swing states like Ohio. That grassroots field apparatus is still there, even if it has fractured into many competing organizations and sectors that have not been able to – not until tomorrow night, anyway – coalesce behind a single GOP presidential candidate. But it’s still there, lurking, a specter that haunts Willard Mitt Romney and his “inevitability” claims.

The second thing to remember is that Obama’s grassroots and online fundraising really didn’t kick in to high gear until the night he won the Iowa primary and, a week later, the night he lost the New Hampshire primary to Clinton, was in fact the night that the Obama campaign broke all online fundraising records in US politics.

As we’ve argued for 20 months now, all it takes to derail the Romney Express is for the Evangelical Right of the GOP base to unite behind a single candidate. As hard as it is for political factions to come to alliance, the early caucus and primary process tends to force them into it. Americans are pragmatic when it comes to politics. They gravitate toward winners and electoral contests almost always boil down to two or three candidates who are perceived as having a chance to win. The votes and the money then drop the also-rans and follow those leaders.

While each of his rivals has enjoyed a brief stint atop the Iowa polls (in this order, over the past six months, it went Romney, Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich, Paul and now back to Romney again), Santorum has been out there doing the grassroots organizing while the media paid almost no attention to him at all. As Bloomberg correspondents John McCormick and Tim Higgins report:

“The former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, now in third place in the most closely watched Iowa poll, has spent more time in the state than any opponent, traveling to all 99 counties over more than 100 days. He’s trying to validate the campaign axiom of the Iowa caucuses: organize, organize, organize and get hot at the end.”

The conservative National Review Online’s Robert Costa also notices the late results of Santorum’s grassroots organizing:

“Des Moines, Iowa – On Sunday night, I stopped by Santorum’s headquarters in nearby Urbandale. The cramped offices were bustling. Supporters, from college kids to retirees, made phone calls and visitors were constant, most of them looking for lawn signs. According to an organizer, the campaign has enlisted over 1,100 caucus captains.”

The stylistic differences between the Santorum campaign and the Romney campaign are as stark as their ideological tendencies. Santorum has crisscrossed Iowa’s 99 counties in a pick-up truck, quietly convincing GOP precinct leaders and church ministers, while Romney has relied more on big-money “SuperPACs” to carpet bomb the airwaves and leaked big media reporter spoon-fed negative story “scoops” taking down successive frontrunners in a row.

Indeed, if Santorum has now boxed Gingrich out of the Anti-Romney position, it is because Gingrich did too much of his campaigning via the airwaves and did not devote the requisite time to grassroots organizing that Iowans respect so much. And Gingrich might have pulled it off – with Texas Governor Rick Perry and Minnesota US Rep. Michele Bachmann each following ex-candidate Herman Cain into electoral oblivion caused by their own erratic missteps under the glare of media attention – had Santorum not been working the field while everyone else was trying to manipulate the heavens of “conventional wisdom.”

Now that the Des Moines Register poll has signaled to GOP conservatives that Rick Santorum is up there in the first tier with Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, watch as Gingrich, Perry and Bachmann, and even Paul, each bleed support over the next 30 hours to the new Anti-Mitt. Paul had been the other candidate with a bona fide field organization, albeit most of it imported from other states from his boisterous male volunteers so adept at packing “straw poll” events over the past year, but face it: part of his December surge was entirely based on the perception by some conservative Republicans that he was the only one who could best Romney in Iowa. (And if you need any more proof that Paul is a lost cause, look no further than Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald, now desperately trying to sell Paul to “progressives,” and revealing his own ideological axes to grind in the process: Greenwald is a reliably wrong bellwether in the sense that any bandwagon he attempts to form goes quickly next into the dustbin of history; yes, he is that bad a prognosticator.)

To paraphrase Des Moines Register pollster Ann Selzer – nobody polls Iowans more accurately – after watching Santorum’s numbers rise night after night: Momentum, thy name is Rick Santorum.

None of this stops the national Republican Industrial Complex and its media allies from pushing the Romney-is-inevitable meme (just as the Democratic Industrial Complex tried to do for Hillary Clinton four years ago). Politico’s Roger Simon tweeted after the Des Moines Register poll showed Romney in the lead that the party faithful might as well surrender to Mitt and get on with its Florida nominating convention next summer: “It’s over. Let’s all head for Tampa.” They say that even if Romney loses Iowa he will still win New Hampshire next week (and he probably will, just as other Massachusetts pols from Dukakis to Tsongas to Kerry have triumphed in the Granite State as boy-next-door favorite sons; that’s practically a given).

Yet my Boston Phoenix colleague, political reporter David Bernstein, did some actual shoe-leather reporting this weekend and found that Santorum has been stealthily doing the organizing spade work in New Hampshire, which votes on January 10, just as he has in Iowa.

“I spoke this evening with Santorum campaign manager Michael Biundo. Biundo is a New Hampshire guy. He took Frank Giunta from obscurity to Congress. For a time he headed a coalition of grassroots conservative groups in the state. Back in the day, he was part of the team that helped Pat Buchanan win the ’96 primary.

“He knows New Hampshire, is what I’m saying.

“Biundo tells me that, in addition to some endorsements in New Hampshire, ‘we’ve had key people, in key communities, talking to people. We’ve done the ID work, done the calls, had people going door-to-door, been visible at all the Republican events.’

“In short, all the things Huckabee didn’t do before winning Iowa.”

And it seems that Santorum has been doing the same in the next big primary after that, set for January 21 in South Carolina, announcing he has campaign chairmen in 41 of 46 Palmetto State counties.

Gingrich and Perry, both claiming the role of putative “Southern Candidate,” will likely pull out all the stops to try and reemerge in South Carolina, too. And I may yet come full circle by then to my original instincts that Gingrich had the best chance of becoming the Anti-Romney. But for tomorrow, I’m projecting Rick Santorum in Iowa, in spite of that all the “computer model” data-driven prediction machines have him in third place. That’s because, especially in the early caucuses and primaries, polling can only tell us so much. It does not measure field organization. It does not measure the bigotries and prejudices that respondents hide from pollsters (in this case, the Evangelical discrimination against Mormons which drives the imperative to find an Anti-Romney). And in the Iowa caucuses, polling has always undercounted the eventual Evangelical candidate's final vote.

It seems almost strange that the Evangelical candidate, this time, is going to be a Catholic from a mid-Atlantic industrial state like Pennsylvania. But Santorum is one of those radical fringe Catholics who homeschools his kids, has long lobbied for creationism (what he calls “intentional design”) to be taught in public schools as an alternative to Darwin’s theory of evolution, thinks anti-abortion and anti-homosexuality are the defining “issues” of our times, and so he fits the Evangelical matrix like a warm and comfortable glove out to shovel snow on an Iowa winter’s day.

Santorum has also gambled that such “social issues” will triumph over Romney’s economic determinism. Romney has basically sought to run Reagan’s 1980 campaign against Jimmy Carter, this time versus Barack Obama 2012, asking voters if they are better off today than they were four years ago. Never mind that a financial industry CEO from Bain Capital is about the poorest standard-bearer one could invent as the new defender of “the 99 percent.” The dirty truth about America in 2012 is that – tea party and “occupy” claims aside – its economy is measurably improving, its jobless rate is going down, and the very middle class that complains about how screwed over it is will still riot in the chain store lanes on Black Friday to buy the latest holiday gifts and then line up, after the rioting and looting, at the checkout counter to dutifully pay for the loot.

As Keith Lazar, 62, of the town of Washington, Iowa told Eli Salislow of the Washington Post, “Life is Good.” Salislow describes the reality on the ground in Iowa as GOP candidates tell voters that the nation is in “crisis” and economic disaster:

“This is the Washington with a 4 percent unemployment rate, with record-breaking hog and cattle production, with a new high school and a $6 million library, with a newspaper that doesn’t bother to print a crime blotter, with heated sidewalks in front of the bank so customers never have to walk in the snow… It is also a place where, day after day, presidential candidates make their case that the country is a horrific mess.”

Making the case that the United States is in an economic shambles has itself become a millionaire business from right to left, from Rush Limbaugh to Paul Krugman! Demagogues, all of them: preying on the guilt and fear of what is still the most comfortable land on earth. And that’s why Romney’s economic message will prove thin gruel to motivate and mobilize the Republican and Independent electorate even if he does become the nominee. And it’s also why “social issues” are, I project, going to carry the day tomorrow in Iowa, and push Santorum damn close to the top position, if not to first place itself.

Chances are you are reading this from a high speed Internet connection in the comfort of a heated shelter: proof enough that most of you are not worse off today than you were four years ago, and so most of you are going to vote based on issues other than economic worries. Heck, it won’t even necessarily be a vote cast on “issues,” but, rather, on which team organizes you best to vote for its guy. In Iowa on the Republican side, Santorum is the one – with an assist from pre-existing Evangelical organizations and organizers – who has apparently done it. Next November, it will more likely be the community organizing of the Obama reelection campaign. Or, to properly appropriate the electoral credo of 1992 to amend it for 2012 realities: It’s the Organizing, Stupid!

 

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About Al Giordano

Biography

Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.

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