Santorum Surges, Romney Shrugs: Why Mitt Isn’t Worried About Losing Iowa

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 2 2012 1:08 PM

Santorum Surges, Romney Shrugs

Why a Santorum caucus victory won’t change the race.

Republican presidential candidate former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) waits to be introduced during a campaign stop at the Daily Grind coffee shop on January 1, 2012 in Sioux City, Iowa.
Rick Santorum campaigns in Sioux City, Iowa.

Photograph by Scott Olson.

URBANDALE, IOWA—“Did you hear what Huntsman said?” asked the man in the Hawkeyes sweatshirt of the woman in the Carhartt jacket. “He said he was in New Hampshire, because they only pick corn in Iowa. They pick presidents in New Hampshire.”

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

She cluck-cluck-tsked her disapproval of Huntsman. The two of them left the Friedrichs Coffee where I was working, ending my short career as an eavesdropper. They were unhappy, as people hearing unpleasant truths tend to be. The Iowa caucuses will not pick the 2012 Republican nominee.

Seriously, they won’t. The Iowa caucuses are not binding. They are “preference polls.” A Republican (or temporary Republican) who shows up at a precinct caucus site Tuesday will declare that she likes one candidate more than any other candidate. The most popular candidates will get more precinct delegates to the March 2012 county conventions. The county conventions will choose delegates to the state convention. Only there, finally, will Republicans pick delegates for the 2012 convention.

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John McCain basically skipped Iowa in 2008, dropping into the state just before the vote for appearances’ sake, eventually coming in fourth place. Nine months later, when Republicans gathered in St. Paul, Minn., he won 40 of the state’s 40 delegates.

Losing the caucuses, especially if the loss comes after a polling collapse, can “prove” your campaign is over. But winning them doesn’t guarantee anything. Mike Huckabee finished first in the 2008 caucus … and got a TV show.

On New Year’s Day, I drove to Atlantic, Iowa, a smallish town about an hour from Des Moines, for one of the final stops on Mitt Romney’s close-out tour. An hour before the governor arrived, the Family Table diner—I will describe it as “quaint,” as this makes the swatch of carpet covering a depression in the bathroom floor seem homey—was packed like a rich kid’s toy box. Dennis Butler and his wife Marilyn Miller-Butler lucked out with seats near the door. She was a 2008 Obama voter who’d probably caucus for Ron Paul. Neither was very much interested in Romney.

“I’m leaning toward Huntsman,” said Butler. “I lean more moderate, generally. I’m pro-choice, and I’m not particularly bothered by gay marriage. I’d like it if they called it something besides marriage, though.”

Butler, who served one term as a Republican legislator in the 1970s (he lost to a Democrat in the Watergate wave), liked what Huntsman said about the caucuses. “I shouldn’t agree, because it doesn’t behoove an Iowan to do this, but it makes sense to skip here and start in New Hampshire.”

While we were talking, the candidate who completely ignored this strategy was a two-and-a-half-hour drive away. Rick Santorum, who will have spent 104 campaign days in Iowa by caucus night, was heading to conservative northwest Iowa in a truck, chauffeured by his stalwart sidekick Chuck Laudner, accompanied by author Brad Thor and radio host Sam Clovis. Unable to teleport across the state—a technological problem, but one that more funding for ethanol could surely fix—I bargained with another reporter to share audio. I heard Clovis introduce Santorum in Sioux City with an odd comparison between caucus-going and The Untouchables, and tell the crowd, “Vote for your flag! Vote for your country.”

Santorum took the microphone. “This is my 372nd town hall meeting that I’ve done,” seeming to second-guess himself on the number. (I’ve seen him act this out before.) “I said, you know, the people of Iowa, they’re not doing what the national folks are doing, people around the country. They’re doing the job of Iowans. You fight to be first. You take this responsibility seriously. You recommend to the nation who you’ve met, who you’ve researched, who you’ve questioned … having researched these candidates more than any other group of Americans ever will!”

The questions from Santorum’s audience were surprisingly specific. One man shamed Santorum for the endorsement he made in his home state’s 2004 U.S. Senate primary.