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“The only poll I am concerned about is the one on election day.”
President George W Bush's response to low approval ratings

In many respects the above quote has been the story of the 2012 Republican Primary up to this point and is the story of the former United States Senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum. Senator Santorum was the unofficial winner last night, although he officially came in second place, losing by only 6 votes, the smallest margin in a primary/caucus. His strong finish was the story of the Iowa caucus last night due to the fact that he polled in single digits for much of the race and had only been considered a frontrunner for about a week before the election.

There are two theories behind his success: the first is that grassroots campaigning still works; maybe only in Iowa, but it still works. Senator Santorum did not do well in fundraising or earned media (free media) during most of the debates, he was a fixture at the end of the stage, meaning he got very little camera time, and very few questions came his way. However, he built his success in Iowa by traveling to each of its 99 counties in a modest pick-up truck, and conducting over 380 town hall meetings to both large and small audiences. His theme of Faith, Family and Freedom, which was rooted in social conservatism, aligned itself well with the constituency of the state and made up for his major shortcomings in fundraising.

Since the creation of Super PAC’s (Political Action Committees) via the Citizens United Ruling by the Supreme Court in 2010, which lifted the limits on spending by corporations for political purposes, many political pundits believed that the day of successful grassroots campaigning was officially over. But on this night, and maybe only on this night, Senator Santorum proved that grassroots campaigning, combined with a strategic and consistent messaging strategy are still viable political tools even when you do not have deep pockets. This is the sensational theory behind his success in Iowa.

The other theory, which may be more practical and realistic, is that his success came because of the shortcomings of the other candidates. In the months and weeks prior to the Iowa caucus just about every other candidate in the race, with the exception of Governor John Huntsman, received a major surge in polling and was considered a frontrunner, except Rick Santorum. This leads many to believe that if Herman Cain did not have several character challenges, Ron Paul was “less” libertarian, Rick Perry had a better memory, Newt Gingrich did not have such a colored and controversial past, Michelle Bachman was more electable, and Mitt Romney was more consistent and reliable in his beliefs, that Senator Santorum would not have been as successful. Put plainly, it took each of these factors being played out in the media, and intense bickering between the candidates before Rick Santorum became a front-runner .

Did Senator Santorum benefited from the shortcoming of others?

Because of support from the Super PACs, Governor Romney spent a considerable amount of time and money attacking Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, which all but crippled Gingrich’s campaign. Rick Perry and Michelle Bachman whose major strengths are social conservatism, performed so poorly in a socially conservative state, that Bachman dropped out the next morning, and Perry stated on election night that he was going back to Texas to reassess his campaign. Ron Paul has a core group of supporters who like his ideas, but he also has just as many, if not more opponents, within his own party, who strongly disagree with him.

The upside for Senator Santorum in the GOP race is that he is a strong debater, he has a consistent conservative record, he comes from a blue collar state in Pennsylvania that has been very pivotal in Presidential elections, and he has a been in Congress for almost two decades. While he will certainly be out spent by Governor Romney during the campaign, the questions will be: Can he build a strong coalition in other states? Can he appeal to Republicans and Independents who are not motivated by social conservative issue? Can he maintain his composure (this is one of his major liabilities) when he becomes the center of attacks from the other candidates? This is something that he avoided due to his low poll numbers.

Nothing that happened last night has changed the reality that Mitt Romney is still the frontrunner, he is still ahead in most polls, he has the strongest organization, and he has the deepest pockets. Despite the excitement and fluctuation of the other candidates throughout the early days of the primary, Romney has remained consistent, and he actually won the caucuses in Iowa. Many still question whether a win in Iowa is truly indicative of future success on the campaign trail?

The major issue going forward in the campaign from the GOP perspective is this: will Christians vote for a Mormon? Will members of the Tea Party vote for a man who supported insurance mandates in Massachusetts? Will social conservatives support a man who once was pro-choice? Can Santorum, raise enough money very quickly and do what most of the other candidates could not do, maintain strong polling? Is Newt dead or will he come back as the race shifts down South?

Only time will tell!

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