Santorum Sweep Defies Conventional Wisdom

February 9, 2012
By
Gage Skidmore /Free Photos

DENVER, CO – Nobody really saw Rick Santorum coming. Even Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli, whose job is to keep his finger on the Colorado political pulse, admits he was as surprised as anyone by Santorum’s victory in the Feb. 7 Republican caucus vote.

“About 24 hours beforehand, I had some people I respect tell me to look out for Santorum,” said Ciruli. “But, no, I can’t say I expected this.”

In what may be the biggest upset of the campaign season so far, Santorum won 40 percent of the Colorado vote to 35 percent for Mitt Romney, with Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul divvying up the remainder of the spoils.

What makes Santorum’s victory particularly shocking is that Romney owned Colorado in the 2008 Republican presidential caucus. He took 60 percent of the vote to John McCain’s 18 percent. With that kind of history, it would be easy for Romney to take Colorado for granted, and it’s entirely possible that he did.

Romney appeared to have it all: the backing of the Colorado Republican establishment, the money, the momentum after victories in Florida and Nevada. He even had the Mormons, a voting bloc that routinely shows up big in the state’s Republican primary and caucus votes.

In other words, this wasn’t a race in which Romney had to fight the anti-Mormon tide that has allegedly emerged in Southern states. He didn’t lose Colorado because he’s Mormon. He lost it because Santorum wanted Colorado more, and it showed.

Santorum spent more time in Colorado than the other three Republican candidates combined. Employing a quickie version of the invasion strategy that helped him pull of his one-vote victory in the Iowa caucuses, he acted as if he had nothing better to do than hang out with Coloradans for eight days.

He posed for photos. He shook every hand. He made a dozen appearances, concentrating on the voter-rich Denver suburbs.

By the time Romney arrived for his first rally in Colorado, Santorum had been here for five days. At the Lone Tree Golf Club, he spoke before a packed house for about an hour, and then spent another hour slowly moving through the handshake line, making eye contact, answering questions, spending the only commodity he has more of than Romney, which is time.

Romney is running a 50-state race. Santorum has to pick and choose his battles. He can’t reach millions of people with television ads, which makes it all but impossible for him to compete in a big state like Florida, with its winner-take-all primary.

As a relatively small state with a caucus system, however, Colorado is perfect for Santorum. He doesn’t need to run ads: He can meet and greet enough voters to flip the outcome of a caucus, especially if he skips Florida and Nevada, which he did. Of the 66,027 Republicans who voted in the Colorado caucuses, it’s entirely possible that half of them had seen Santorum in person beforehand.

Romney, by contrast, didn’t really commit. He made a speech in Colorado Springs the Saturday before the caucus, then left. He was back again Monday for a fundraiser and rally at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, but he didn’t hang around and get to know people afterward.

In fact, the Romney campaign may force politicos to rethink the value of the robocall. Anyone who lived in a household with a registered Republican received at least a dozen robocalls from the Romney, his wife, and his Colorado friends. The Santorum camp sent out maybe three.

Santorum also got lucky. Gingrich, who’s also positioning himself as the conservative alternative to Romney, decided not to contest Colorado in favor of focusing on the Super Tuesday states. Ron Paul made exactly one appearance in Colorado. That left the field wide open for Santorum to tar Romney as too-close-to-Obama-for-comfort candidate.

At every stop, Santorum attacked the presumption that Romney is the only candidate who can beat President Obama. According to Santorum, Obamacare is the important issue in the 2012 campaign, but Romney can’t take advantage of it because he signed off on the Massachusetts health-care plan as governor.

“Mitt Romney’s RomneyCare is ObamaCare. He says it’s right for Massachusetts–no, it’s not,” said Santorum in one speech. “We will not only lose that issue, we will turn it against us.”

Romney would have argued that the Massachusetts plan has almost nothing in common with ObamaCare. He would have pointed out that there’s a distinction between allowing states to make their own decisions and having a federal plan forced down their throats. He would have rolled his eyes at the suggestion that he’s not as electable as Santorum.

Romney would have done all those things if he’d been here. But he wasn’t. Santorum was.

 

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