How Is Rick Santorum Running a Campaign Without Conducting a Single Poll?

The new science of winning campaigns.
March 20 2012 6:35 PM

Can You Win a Campaign Without Conducting Polls?

Rick Santorum is giving it a shot. 

Santorum speaks to supporters and caucus voters during a campaign stop March 17, 2012
Rick Santorum so far has run his campaign without relying on pollsters

Whitney Curtis/Getty Images.

In recent weeks, in an office just off the Beltway in suburban Virginia, Rick Santorum’s mom-and-pop campaign for the presidency opened a national headquarters with less fanfare than Barack Obama regularly musters when christening a county field office. Santorum’s new space houses two dozen staffers, including those working on communications, surrogate scheduling, digital strategy, and grassroots outreach. Still, many top Santorum aides remain scattered across the country, working out of their homes and relying on teleconferences for their daily back-and-forth. “We’re running a campaign the way people do business today,” Santorum adviser John Brabender recently told National Review. “It’s not the classic, 1960s-style campaign.”

Sasha Issenberg Sasha Issenberg

Sasha Issenberg is the author of The Victory Lab about the new science of political campaigns.

In the most crucial respect, however, Santorum’s operation is exactly like a classic 1960s campaign: That was the last time candidates spent millions of dollars to win high office without guidance from pollsters. Only back then it wasn’t by choice, or accompanied by a sense of self-congratulation about the principle involved. “People say, ‘Does that mean you can’t afford one?’ No, we raised $9 million in February. We could afford a pollster,” says Brabender, a Pittsburgh media consultant and close Santorum confidant who is now the presidential campaign’s top strategist. “There’s a way that polling makes people crazy with data and they want to build the whole campaign around that.”

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Santorum’s advisers read plenty of public polls and have other sources of data to inform their decisions, but some of their riskiest—and ultimately self-destructive—tactical moves the campaign has made are ones that were undertaken with the least information. The candidate who proclaimed himself “Senador Puertorriqueño” won no delegates and less than 10 percent of the vote in Puerto Rico’s weekend primary; aides acknowledge that the choice to spend two days politicking on the island instead of Illinois was made without having previously called any voters there. In Michigan last month, Santorum’s decision to dispatch robocalls appealing to “Democrats who are going to send a loud message to Massachusetts Mitt Romney by voting for Rick Santorum for president” helped to muddy Santorum’s argument that he, not Romney, is the true conservative in the race. The calls had been crudely targeted at voters who looked like Democrats but had participated in past Republican primaries—a motley bunch that likely includes socially conservative Reagan Democrats, mischief-making liberal activists, moderates honestly drawn to John McCain, and African-Americans who crossed over to vote for Detroit-area pastor Keith Butler in 2006—without regard to these groups’ divergent agendas. “We maybe didn’t model it as well as we could have,” concedes campaign manager Mike Biundo. “Given the matchup and how close it was we decided it would be smart to turn out every possible voter.”

Brabender, whose clients include candidates for state legislature and county executive, says he can’t remember the last time he ran a campaign without his own polling. He has directed Santorum’s political efforts since his first campaign in 1990, when—in the standard course of assembling a team of consultants and vendors—he hired the pollster Neil Newhouse. Newhouse emerged in the second generation of campaign polling. In the first generation, which lasted into the 1970s, managing call rooms and manually weighting samples made survey-taking an expensive and exclusive business within the reach of only large campaigns. While John F. Kennedy commissioned Louis Harris to conduct 77 polls throughout 1960, most statewide candidates could rarely afford more than a few surveys, usually to benchmark public opinion early in an election season.

By the time Santorum first ran for Congress, computing advances and deregulation of long-distance phone calls made polling cheap enough that candidates at every level could afford it and well-funded candidates could track a race’s vicissitudes in daily installments. Newhouse conducted polls for Santorum in five congressional and Senate campaigns until last year, when the former Pennsylvania senator declared as a matter of conviction that he wanted to seek the presidency without a pollster. Brabender found himself turning away regular pitches from public-opinion firms looking to win the campaign’s business. “Rick said, ‘I don’t want someone telling us what to believe,’ ” Brabender recalls. Santorum is today vying for the Republican presidential nomination with far less proprietary intelligence about the electorate than Romney’s father had at his hands when he ran for governor of Michigan in 1962.

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