Santorum gambles, and loses, in NH

Rick Santorum gambled, and lost, by campaigning in New Hampshire following his strong second-place showing in Iowa.

A lot of Santorum’s hard-earned Iowa momentum has been lost after a rough week in New Hampshire, a libertarian-leaning state that was always going to be an uphill battle for the social conservative.

After campaigning hard in the Granite State rather than heading straight for the redder state of South Carolina, Santorum managed just a fifth-place finish with 9.3 percent of the vote, with 95 percent of precincts reporting. The crowds were large for Santorum, as many voters gave him a second look. Yet, they never warmed to him. 

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Santorum was never expected to win New Hampshire, but many expected that he would secure between 10 percent and 20 percent, especially after making the state a top priority. In the wake of the Iowa results, the former Pennsylvania senator noted to various media outlets that he visited New Hampshire more than 30 times. But his strategy didn't work.

“[Santorum] should have gone straight to South Carolina knowing he had limited resources and that the profile of New Hampshire was unfavorable to him,” said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. “The momentum has dissipated. You can’t save political capital, you have to spend it right away. He took his capital and let it dissipate."

The Santorum move to be relevant in New Hampshire was similar to Mike Huckabee's (R) in 2008. The former Arkansas governor campaigned in New Hampshire following his Iowa win, but finished a distant third, attracting only 11 percent of the vote.

Like Huckabee, Santorum never garnered momentum in New Hampshire, stumbling out of the gates. 


“The week has been a bumpy ride for Santorum here,” said University of New Hampshire Professor Dante Scala. “He had a tough time pivoting from social issues to the economy.”

Santorum’s speech following his virtual tie with Mitt Romney in Iowa’s caucuses focused on his personal story and blue-collar roots — topics that could have helped him grow his base of support in the state, as Pat Buchanan did in his strong 1992 and 1996 showings. Many expected him to follow a similar game plan, as his national political director, Michael Biundo, had run Buchanan’s New Hampshire campaigns.

But on Santorum’s first day in New Hampshire he wound up in a fight with a female college student about gay marriage, which is legal in New Hampshire. In the lengthy exchange, he compared gay marriage to polygamy, an association he has made previously. The exchange got wide coverage, and derailed his ability to pivot to issues where he agreed with more New Hampshire Republicans. He later took tough questions on medical marijuana and medical insurance.

Santorum also continued to exchange shots with Ron Paul, a candidate who is not drawing from the same pool of voters. During last weekend’s debates, Santorum called Paul “dangerous” on foreign policy and “ineffective” at passing legislation. Paul, in turn, called him “corrupt.”

“Santorum loves a good argument,” said Sabato, “He’s the type of politician who can’t resist an opportunity to win a fight.”

He didn't spend a dime on advertising in the state, greatly limiting his ability to reach out to voters just learning about the former Pennsylvania candidate and shaping their opinions of him. Without that air cover it made it hard for Santorum to make inroads with voters.

“He was at the mercy of free media,” said Scala. "Sometimes you can shape the story but other times you can’t.”

Santorum also lost an opportunity to work hard in South Carolina, a state with a large socially conservative population.  He made one brief trip down there to receive the endorsement of prominent social conservative Gary Bauer, but spent most of his time in a losing cause in New Hampshire.

That stands in contrast to Rick Perry’s decision to cede New Hampshire and camp out in South Carolina. While Santorum has been in New Hampshire, Paul has been on the airwaves in South Carolina hammering him as a 'a corporate lobbyist and Washington politician" with "a record of betrayal."

Romney has led in all recent polls of South Carolina, and Santorum was in third place behind Gingrich in the latest poll of the state, conducted by the Democratic Public Policy Polling. Most pundits say if Romney wins in South Carolina, the race is all but over.