Rick Santorum in Hamlin, Iowa: 2012 caucus winner draws only four people to a campaign stop in rural Iowa.

Rick Santorum Almost Had to Eat Alone During a Campaign Visit to an Iowa Diner

Rick Santorum Almost Had to Eat Alone During a Campaign Visit to an Iowa Diner

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June 9 2015 3:52 PM

Rick Santorum’s Lonely Campaign Lunch

Rick Santorum speaks to guests at the Iowa Freedom Summit on Jan. 24, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. Better to be alone on stage than off it.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

What happens when you hold a campaign event and no one shows up? Rick Santorum almost found out the hard way this week when he scheduled a stop in a small Iowa town in the middle of the workday. Here’s the Des Moines Register’s Josh Hafner with the scene in Hamlin:

When just one Iowan showed up to Rick Santorum's 2 p.m. campaign stop at a restaurant here Monday, the winner of the 2012 Iowa caucuses made a quick decision: Might as well order lunch. "I haven't eaten, actually, all day," he said to his guest, Peggy Toft, an insurance agent and chair of the county's Republican Party.

Before Santorum was finished with his breaded tenderloin and onion rings, three more Iowans had mercifully arrived and joined his table in the town of about 250. The former Pennsylvania senator had proved only slightly more popular at his previous stop on Monday, when he drew a total of 10 Iowans (nonpress division) in Panora, a city of more than 1,000.

Those numbers made for some pretty rough headlines: “Santorum calls crowd of 4 in rural Iowa a success” isn’t exactly the stuff of flacks’ dreams. But more troubling for the Republican’s campaign is that his lackluster attendance isn’t actually wildly out of line with how he’s polling in the Hawkeye State at large. He is sitting at 4.5 percent in RealClearPolitics’ latest rolling average of state GOP polls. (Nationally, meanwhile, the family values conservative is polling at less than half that.)

Contacted by phone after the Hamlin event, Toft told Politico that poor turnout was at least partly to blame on poor communication. “We didn’t have a lot of notice that he was going to be there,” she said. Adding insult to injury, the Republican said that she’s “leaning” toward backing Santorum in next year’s caucus but that she hasn’t actually made up her mind just yet. “I feel like I have to get all the facts,” she said, following the 10 minutes or so she estimated she spent talking one-on-one with the candidate.

Santorum is no stranger to small groups. He was largely an afterthought at the start of the 2012 cycle before he rallied late to ultimately win the Iowa Caucus (after a recount), a surprise victory that fueled an insurgent campaign that claimed 10 more nominating contests before ending in defeat to Mitt Romney. Still, that Santorum appears to be starting right back in the same place that he did in 2011—and not from where he left off in 2012—is the latest sign that he’s gotten lost in a crowded primary field that includes 2008 Iowa caucus winner Mike Huckabee and a host of other social conservatives.

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City.