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.

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.

“Arlen Specter,” grumbled the voter. “We know where he is today.”

“Yeah, out of the Senate,” said Santorum. “Thank God.” He explained, for possibly the 372nd time, that he endorsed Specter over Pat Toomey only to make sure Republicans held the Senate and could confirm judges. (Specter was set to take over the judiciary committee.) This was exactly what the Iowa caucuses were for: Voter by voter, Santorum was explaining himself to cynics, getting taken seriously.

Back in Atlantic, Romney had nothing to prove and few skeptics to prove it to. By the time he showed up, around 2:40 p.m., the diner contained more media than voters. So many TV cameras had been set up in a larger dining room that humans couldn’t actually use it, so Romney couldn’t speak there. The candidate perched on a stool—much better for cameras, anyway—and gave a 10-minute version of his stump, with more actual policy than usual.

“We learn today that Iran has developed a nuclear rod, they say, for purposes of their power system,” said Romney. “Of course, it’s also a device that can be transformed into weaponry. They’ve also announced that they’ve tested a surface-to-air missile. This president came in with his own plan for Iran. He was going to engage with Iran. He was going to meet with Ahmadinejad.” He sneered the two verbs, as if Obama’s stupidity was churning up his stomach.

Romney met the diners one on one, chased by cameras fighting for comically bad views—lots of audio of the candidate, framed by the backs of voters’ heads. When he was done, Romney’s staff let the press know that he’d be taking on-camera questions, and a Three Stooges rush filled the doorways leading to the over-laden dining room of cameras. The fastest reporters got table space to plant their laptops. The cameramen shouted (politely) for everyone without a camera to “get down.” And then we waited. Photographers, cross-legged at the front of the room, commented on all of this with barnyard noise.

“Moooo!” they said. “Moooo!”

Romney arrived, game for five questions, one about why Republicans should choose him and not Santorum (“I’m a businessman,” of course), some about whether he’d blown it by not campaigning more like Santorum.

“Social conservatives here say you didn’t spend enough time reaching out to them,” said CNN’s Joe Johns. “Do you have any regrets, especially given the Santorum surge?”

“I’ve had the privilege of going across the state,” said Romney, “and meeting people across Iowa, the last time around, and lots of friendships and associations then. A lot of those people still support me, and I’ve been able to rekindle those friendships.” In other words: Eh, whatever. Romney knew that he’d lucked out, and that Iowa would either give him a win—probably with less than 30 percent of the vote—or that a social conservative would win, and the media would remember that Iowa didn’t matter.

After Romney finished, I drove to Urbandale, mostly to catch up with the Santorum train. The candidate’s headquarters, located in one of America’s most anonymous office parks (the same one as Gingrich’s), was decorated with a Christmas tree. I looked past the ornaments intermingled with Santorum stickers, over to the table where volunteers could grab talking points for caucus night.

Santorum is a favorite of the Tea Party for his efforts fighting corruption and taxpayer abuse in Washington.

Sarah Palin said Rick Santorum’s “been consistent in saying we need to slash the federal income tax.”

When Rick lost re-election in 2006, it was the worst environment possible for Republicans.

I walked out with a volunteer, Nathan, who’d signed up when Santorum placed fourth in the Ames Straw Poll. He pointed out the inflatable bed that Santorum’s state campaign chairman Cody Brown used to sleep in. (It was propped up against a window; no snooping required.)

“If we pull off a miracle on Tuesday,” said Nathan, “it will be because of him.”

Of course Santorum winning Iowa wouldn’t be a miracle. It would be a triumph of hard work. But Santorum winning New Hampshire, or Nevada, or South Carolina, or the nomination: Those would be miracles.

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