Rick Santorum News: Can He Win the Iowa Caucuses?

ANALYSIS

  @ibtimes on December 21 2011 5:03 PM
Rick Santorum
Rick Santorum has come under fire from the NAACP for conflating welfare recipients with African-Americans. Reuters

Rick Santorum has been little more than a sideshow for most of the Republican presidential campaign. Now, a mere two weeks before the Iowa caucuses, he is edging into the spotlight -- but is it too little, too late?

Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania whose political career seemed dead when he lost a re-election bid in 2006, is still polling below 4 percent nationally, but he is beginning to gain some traction in Iowa. A recent poll found him tied for fourth place there with 10 percent support, and on Tuesday, he received endorsements from two prominent evangelical leaders.

The Family Leader, an influential Christian conservative group in Iowa, announced on Tuesday that it would not make a collective endorsement, but President Bob Vander Plaats and board member Chuck Hurley both personally endorsed Santorum, throwing the support of the state's many evangelical voters back up in the air.

Santorum, who is known for his provocative statements on social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, was quick to seize on the new poll results and endorsements.

At a recent campaign stop in Des Moines, he used a high-school analogy to assure his supporters that, while voters have spent the past few months flirting with other candidates, they will come around to him in the end.

I'm sort of the guy at the dance, when the girls walk in they sort of walk by, and they take a few turns at the dance hall with the guys that are a little better-looking, a little flashier, a little more bling, he said. But at the end of the evening, old steady Eddie's there. He's the guy you want to bring home to mom and dad.

Will Santorum Surge?

But political experts say it's not as simple as that. The endorsements from Vander Plaats and Hurley will certainly help Santorum in Iowa, but he's still a long shot for the top three spots, and even if he managed an upset in the caucuses here, he would struggle in most other states.

The polls suggest that there is still fluidity in the race, and there are some candidates that may do better than expected, Costas Panagopoulos, a political scientist at Fordham University in New York, told the International Business Times. At this point, it's an expectations game. Candidates that beat their expectations substantially could still benefit from that performance even if they fail to be one of the top winners.

But, he added, that doesn't mean Santorum will pull off such an upset.

The backing of prominent evangelicals definitely gives him legitimacy, and his campaign officials insist that he has bipartisan appeal: There's no doubt that momentum is building for Rick Santorum, his top strategist, Hogan Gidley, told ABC News. Conservatives are really starting to recognize that Rick is a viable, consistent alternative to the moderates like Mitt and Newt, [and] it's not just the conservatives who see it in Iowa -- it's the Democrats.

But voters still have serious concerns about Santorum's electability, and not without reason. He earned many admirers during his congressional career for his unwavering support for socially conservative policies, but he also infuriated many people with no-holds-barred comments, like the one in which he likened homosexuality to bestiality and pedophilia.

I think that the endorsements offer the Santorum campaign a breath of life, but I don't know that they by themselves are enough to essentially transform his candidacy at this point, Panagopoulos said. Santorum is a very polarizing political figure, and there are real risks associated with supporting people like that when they have to win general elections.

Steve Hayes, a Weekly Standard reporter who has spoken to voters in Iowa, told Fox News that there are a lot of people who will offer to you Rick Santorum as someone that they support or are supportive of, and they raise the question, can he win here in Iowa? 'I don't want to waste my vote, but if I think he can win, I could cast a vote for him.'

Grassroots Isn't Everything

Jamie Chandler, a political scientist at Hunter College in New York, told IBTimes that the Vander Plaats and Hurley endorsements might give Santorum a small boost in Iowa, but not enough to make him a significant contender.

They have given Santorum some free media and may have had a marginal impact on his poll numbers, but these types of endorsements do little to increase the candidate's chances of victory, Chandler said. Vander Plaats and Hurley personally endorsed him, but the board of The Family Leader has stayed neutral. Because of this, Santorum will not be able to reap the rewards of a unified direct appeal from the organization's leaders to its members.

Matthew Wilson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University, agreed.

Given what we've seen in this race, I wouldn't say that anything is impossible, but it's just hard to see a Santorum path to victory, Wilson told IBTimes. He's going to do better in Iowa than he's polling nationally, but I don't see him breaking into a top-three finish, regardless of those endorsements.

After Iowa comes New Hampshire, whose Republican base is among the least socially conservative in the nation. That means that, in all likelihood, just exceeding expectations in Iowa won't be enough. Santorum will need to finish in the top three in Iowa in order to sustain any real momentum through New Hampshire and into South Carolina, where voters would be more receptive to his platform, Wilson said.

Even if Santorum shows well in Iowa -- say, getting 10 percent of the vote -- the probabilities of him doing well in the other primary states or becoming a strong contender for the nomination are near zero, Chandler said. His campaign organization is too small and underfunded to fuel the mobilization and advertising efforts required to take advantage of any momentum he might gain coming out of Iowa. It would also be impossible for Santorum to moderate his message enough to gain national appeal. His record is too far right and controversial. He is not electable.

Another question that must be raised about Santorum's electability is why he hasn't gotten further on his own. Endorsements can boost a campaign or even jump-start it under the right circumstances, but they can't salvage a campaign that can't sustain itself.

Santorum has been campaigning in Iowa exactly the way people are supposed to campaign in Iowa: on the ground, door to door, town hall to town hall, county to county. He is the only candidate who has visited all 99 counties in the state, and he has spent more time there than anyone else.

That sort of intensive grassroots campaigning is supposed to work in Iowa. It's certainly supposed to get you more than 10 percent of the vote -- and if it doesn't, something is clearly wrong.

Santorum is all organization. There's nothing to catapult him, John Stineman, who ran Steve Forbes' 2000 presidential campaign in Iowa, told NPR. He has the ability to over-perform, but that's all he's got unless he gets hot, and time is running out.

A Bloc Divided

Self-identified evangelical Christians are a powerful force among Iowa Republicans, and they accounted for fully 60 percent of caucus-goers in 2008, when they propelled Mike Huckabee to an upset victory.

But these voters have been unusually divided this election, as evidenced by the fact that The Family Leader was unable to come to a consensus on a group endorsement. Many evangelicals worry that if their vote is split among several candidates, they will forfeit the opportunity to beat candidates they dislike or mistrust, like Mitt Romney. And yet, though several evangelical groups formed a coalition last month to rally around a single conservative candidate, they still haven't done so.

This indecision has allowed many candidates who probably would not have been seriously considered in previous election cycles to rise briefly to the top of the polls. It is worth noting that, without this volatility, Santorum would not be getting this current consideration at all, given that voters are only looking at him now after considering and casting aside Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and, it seems, Newt Gingrich.

But that same indecision makes it very difficult for any one candidate to maintain the level of support they would need to challenge the current front-runners in Iowa: Romney and Ron Paul.

Many people who may want to support Santorum will consider it a wasted vote, especially when you have candidates like Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich who could also potentially appeal to socially conservative voters and are far more electable than Santorum, Panagopoulos said. Those voters have options, and electability is going to be a key factor in how people make up their minds.

With two weeks to go, evangelical leaders are all but begging two of the three candidates known as social conservatives -- Bachmann, Perry and Santorum -- to drop out of the race.

Why can't the top three or so pro-family candidates come together and figure out who has the talents for president, who has the talents for other roles? Hurley said in endorsing Santorum. And those people could quickly ... vault into first place and win the caucuses and win the nomination.

But the chances of that happening -- of any of those candidates ending their campaign two feet from the final lap and forgetting about all the money they've spent -- are slimmer than the chances of John McCain coming back to take the nomination all over again.

Ultimately, while the endorsements from Vander Plaats and Hurley will increase Santorum's support to some degree, they probably won't be enough to unite Iowa's evangelical voters or to give Santorum a chance at the GOP nomination.

These endorsements don't really break new ground for him, Wilson said. They're establishing his credentials with people who we already knew would be sympathetic to Santorum's message.

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