Rick Santorum: Can the former Pennsylvania senator win a campaign without conducting a single poll?

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

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.”

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.”


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.

It is both easier and more difficult to get by without your own polls than it was a half-century ago. Cheap automated phone polls conducted by media and academic institutions—led this year by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, notable for both its ubiquity and coquettish tweets teasing surveys still in the field—have made quick survey data more plentiful than ever. Santorum’s campaign compiles and synthesizes public polling to guide its understanding of the horse race, according to Brabender, and usually has enough information to track the candidate’s standing in various states, and relative strengths and weaknesses against his opponents. Staffers, including deputy political director Nick Pappas, look for friendly terrain by scouring county or district-level results in past state or federal primaries built around a similar ideological architecture. In many states, the combined 2008 performance of Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson offers a rough guide to Santorum’s potential in an area. “We do extremely well with Huckabee voters,” says Brabender.

Santorum’s team is still talking to people about their individual opinions. Since Iowa, the campaign has, estimates Biundo, canvassed hundreds of thousands of likely voters by calling them directly on the phone—split roughly in half between calls from vendors’ call centers and ones placed by volunteers through an online home-calling tool or at Pennsylvania phone banks. So-called “ID” calls target reliable Republican primary voters—and, in some cases, Democrats and independents who can participate—with scripts asking which candidate they support and their views on issues including abortion, gun rights, and economic policy. Voters identified as supporters are sent get-out-the-vote mail as a primary or caucus approaches, while those marked as undecided are lined up for follow-up calls. Those who remain undecided but look like prospective Santorum voters get targeted mail aiming to persuade them until the end. “We try to find out what their one issue is,” says Biundo.

Those calls are not randomly assigned—the campaign is hunting for Santorum supporters to turn out—so they have little predictive value and do not follow traditional polling methodologies. (Scripts encourage volunteers to make a pitch to undecided voters.) But Santorum advisers say the large volume of calls the campaign places, typically far more than any one public or private pollster would make in a given week, allows them to detect movement in the electorate. Even though no polls had shown Santorum winning Mississippi (the New York Times’ statistical modeler Nate Silver gave him a 2 percent chance), Biundo says he was “surprised on election night but not shocked” when his candidate won the popular vote there. The campaign’s ID calls had shown nearly 50 percent of Mississippi voters previously identified as undecided breaking for Santorum in the closing days. By aggregating the results of those calls, Santorum’s campaign has a good idea of who its supporters are, combining basic demographic variables (like age and gender) available on the voter file with geographic indicators like median home price and household income of the areas in which they live. “We carry that demographic profile with us to the next state,” says Biundo. “But every state’s different.”

Indeed, surfing on public information to guide strategy and voluminous ID calls to direct tactics may no longer be a sustainable model now that the nominating contest has turned into a hunt for delegates. Many states allocate their delegates by congressional district, yet public polls hardly ever segment their results by that category (or, in all but the smallest states, conduct enough interviews to have enough respondents in each district to be meaningful). Nearly all states have just redrawn their maps as part of the decennial redistricting process, meaning past electoral results don’t translate well. Many states in the second half of the nominating calendar, like Illinois, haven’t featured a competitive Republican presidential primary in decades. Biundo acknowledges that the one place his own polls would be helpful is the puzzle increasingly dominating the campaign’s attention: how to allocate resources among congressional districts with goal of maximizing Santorum’s delegate gains.

For now Brabender does not plan on backing down from an organizational structure that he says reflects his candidate’s Bulworthian truth-telling instincts. The campaign’s only formal public-opinion monitoring is whatever the candidate picks up interacting with voters at his town-hall meetings. “Santorum senses the message, and we follow him,” says Brabender. “Do we have as much information when we make decisions? No,” he says. “But from a media consultant’s standpoint, I don’t have anyone who is saying ‘the ads aren’t working’ or telling me ‘here’s what the candidate has to say.’ ” Even so, there may be limits to such blissful ignorance: Brabender won’t commit to remaining pollster-free if he needs to orchestrate a general-election campaign for Santorum.