What a Democrat will need to do to score a surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses

Reid Wilson

The quadrennial tradition of everyone in politics becoming an expert on the Iowa Caucus has begun.  Anyone with a twitter account seems to know everything about anything to do with the first-in-the-nation caucus state, with the latest fixation declaring who will surprise and be the “Democrats’ Rick Santorum.”  But before we start making this comparison, a history lesson is in order.

Despite being a former congressman and former member of the U.S. Senate leadership from one of the most coveted swing-state electoral prizes, Santorum was a footnote in political stories when he announced his 2012 campaign. 

That was when he was covered at all. There was the day when Dan Balz of The Washington Post sat down with Santorum for an interview but didn’t bring a pad or pencil to take notes. Who could blame Balz?  Santorum was polling in the low single digits in a field of candidates dominated by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

But Santorum was never deterred. Santorum traveled through Iowa, not in a private jet or motorcade, but first in a battered Chevy Malibu rental car and then in a Dodge Ram pick-up. And if you were in a town with a Pizza Ranch, Smokey Row coffee shop, or public library you likely stumbled upon one of Santorum’s 375 Iowa campaign events. Along the way, Santorum was diligently signing up volunteers and building his campaign organization.

At one event, on a September morning in rural Red Oak, just one woman showed up, but Santorum sat with her for an hour answering every question she had. She walked in a Romney supporter, she left as Santorum’s Montgomery County chairwoman. It was through this tireless campaigning that Santorum built a grassroots army of over 1,400 caucus captains to work on his behalf in the person-to-person combat that epitomizes Iowa caucuses. 

Until mid-December, Santorum’s hard work largely went unnoticed. Santorum’s personal favorability ratings rose in Iowa polling, but never his ballot-test. He always said that once he hit double-digits in just one Iowa poll it would be off to the races because then voters would know he had a chance to win.

That day finally came on Dec. 19 when the Democrat polling firm PPP released a poll showing him at 11 percent. This would be confirmed when CNN/Time released a poll a week later showing Santorum at 16 percent. The “Santorum Surge” had begun and it was off to the races.

National reporters who largely ignored Santorum were left playing catch up.

Some credited two late Iowa endorsementsbut he didn’t receive these endorsements until after his surge began. Others said it was because he visited all 99 Iowa counties – but so did Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-Minn.) and she would come in last. CNN even did a segment highlighting Santorum’s own campaign’s VH-1 pop-up video inspired television ad but Santorum spent less than $50,000 airing it

The reality was that it was the spade work Santorum had done that built the foundation of his caucus winning campaign. He not only visited every county, but he took every event seriously as an organizing test regardless of how many voters came out.

Which brings me back to this year’s Democratic field and the comparisons to Santorum’s campaign.

Rather than asking if a candidate has visited all 99 counties or how many voters are coming out to their events, the real question is “what are they doing when they hold an event?” An event for the sake of a photo op is a waste of the most valuable commodity a campaign has, the candidate’s time.

The real measure is whether campaigns are maximizing the impact of each event by signing up caucus captains and identifying voters at each event – not just their voters but knowing who are the first, second, or even third choices for those who are coming out. Knowing this information, down to the individual voter, in the over 1,500 Iowa caucus precincts, for a voter-base that famously remains undecided until they’ve met a candidate five times, is how a campaign bypasses the national narrative and becomes the story on Caucus night.

That’s how Rick Santorum defied the odds and won the 2012 Iowa Caucus. Show me this candidate and I’ll show you the Democrats’ 2020 Rick Santorum.

Beynon served as Santorum’s 2012 presidential campaign deputy communications director and press secretary.

Tags Iowa caucuses Mitt Romney

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