The Republicans almost went insane: Santorum really could have beaten Romney

It's frightening how close Rick Santorum really came to upending Mitt Romney

Published September 21, 2013 10:29AM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
(Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Excerpted from "The Gamble"

After the South Carolina primary, Mitt Romney needed to turn things around quickly. His next opportunity to do so came two days later at the Republican debate in Tampa, Florida, on January 23. Before the debate took place, Romney released his 2010 and 2011 tax returns—the first returns he had released during the campaign. His failure to release them had been the subject of repeated news stories and attacks from his Republican opponents. At one point before the South Carolina primary, Gingrich said, “If you’re a South Carolinian, you say, ‘Wait a second, why don’t you want me to know about it? Why are you going to wait until after I’ve voted?’” Romney’s tax return showed that he paid a relatively low tax rate—just under 15%, or $6.2 million on $45 million in income—but he did not shy away from defending this fact. At the debate he said, “I pay all the taxes that are legally required and not a dollar more.” Ultimately, releasing these returns was enough to shift attention away from the subject.

Having retained the counsel of veteran Republican debate coach Brett O’Donnell, Romney came out swinging at Gingrich in the debate—“a far different demeanor than he displayed during two lackluster debates last week,” wrote Dan Balz and Rosalind Helderman in the Washington Post. Gingrich, meanwhile, “was far more subdued.” In the next debate, on January 26, Romney was judged similarly. Balz and Amy Gardner wrote that Romney “stepped up at a critical time” while Gingrich “did not have the kind of dominating performance” that he did in the South Carolina debates. Romney was again aided by prominent Republicans, most notably former House majority leader Tom DeLay and former Senate majority leader and presidential candidate Bob Dole. DeLay called Gingrich “erratic” and “undisciplined.” Dole issued a statement that said, in part, “Hardly anyone who served with Newt in Congress has endorsed him and that fact speaks for itself.” Just as in December, Gingrich could not translate his boomlets of media coverage and poll numbers into support among party leaders.

For Romney, these debates appeared to shift the tenor of news coverage about him, portending a similar pattern that would benefit him after the first general election debate in October. Although the volume and tone of Gingrich’s coverage changed little between the South Carolina and Florida primaries—despite the attacks of Romney, Dole, and others—coverage of Romney became much more positive over these eleven days. This positive shift in news about Romney began before the polls in Florida started to shift in his direction, suggesting that it was driven more by events like the debates than the polls themselves.

Romney had other advantages in Florida. One was the electorate, which was less tilted toward evangelicals than it was in South Carolina. Another was his superior campaign. It was better funded, better organized, and arguably more effective. This is readily evident in the volume of television advertising aired by both him and Gingrich. Although Gingrich was somewhat able to keep pace in South Carolina, thanks to an infusion of cash to his super-PAC from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, it was difficult for him to be in two places at once. Only in the week before the Florida primary, and after another infusion from Adelson, was Gingrich able to go up on the air. All told, Romney dominated the airwaves in Florida much more than in South Carolina. In South Carolina, his ads and those of his super-PAC aired almost twice as much as Gingrich’s. In Florida, they aired over four times as often. In the week prior to the Florida primary, Gingrich closed the gap but still languished farther behind Romney than he did in South Carolina.

Did Romney’s advertising advantage help him in Florida, above and beyond the possible benefits of more positive news coverage? Some evidence suggests that the ads mattered. Two Survey USA Florida polls—one taken on January 8, right before the New Hampshire primary, and one taken on January 27–29, right before the Florida primary—showed a 14-point increase in the percent rating Gingrich unfavorably. But Gingrich’s favorable rating did not drop by the same amount in every media market. It dropped in rough proportion to the balance of anti-Gingrich ads and pro-Gingrich ads. The more Romney’s attacks outnumbered Gingrich’s positive ads, the more Floridians came to dislike Gingrich. In fact, if we assume, hypothetically, that Gingrich had been able to match the ads attacking him with an equal amount of promotional advertising, his drop in favorability would have disappeared.

The main limitation of this analysis, however, is that there might have been factors other than anti-Gingrich advertising that drove these trends. Perhaps Romney ran his attack ads in markets where support for Gingrich was already weakening. If so, his ads piggybacked on a trend rather than caused that trend. But one other piece of analysis did suggest that anti-Gingrich advertising could have mattered. In early December 2011, the political communications firm Evolving Strategies conducted a randomized experiment in which people were shown no political ads, an ad promoting Gingrich and an ad attacking him, or ads promoting and attacking Romney. The ads about Romney had no effect, but the two ads focused on Gingrich did. Most important, the effect of the ad attacking Gingrich outweighed the effect of the ad promoting him: people who saw both ads were about 15 points less likely to prefer Gingrich as their first choice compared to someone who saw no ads. To be sure, this experiment was conducted almost two months before the Florida primary and did not involve the precise ads Romney and Restore Our Future aired in Florida. It also cannot explain by itself why the anti-Gingrich ads aired in Florida appeared more effective than those aired in South Carolina. But it suggested that Gingrich was vulnerable to the kinds of attacks he experienced in Florida.

Romney’s advantage extended beyond advertising to field operations. As was true in Iowa, Romney had a ground game that no other candidate could match. Knowing that a significant fraction of voters would vote early—ultimately about 38% did—Romney’s team obtained lists of voters who had requested an absentee ballot and identified voters their statistical models predicted were likely supporters. The campaign then followed up with these voters via phone and mail to make sure they sent in their ballot. Ultimately Romney did much better than Gingrich among those who voted early—something that suggests, although it cannot determine, that his campaign’s tactics helped.

Meanwhile, Gingrich’s campaign organization had no well-developed infrastructure of field offices and volunteers. As late as January 23, the Washington Post reported that Winning Our Future had to step in and try to create this infrastructure. In Florida it was too little, too late. Gingrich did not have a field office in central Florida until January 13, only about two weeks before the primary. Like Romney’s campaign, his campaign also obtained lists of voters who had requested absentee ballots, but the Gingrich campaign did not update its lists as diligently, meaning that volunteers were sometimes talking to Floridians who had already mailed in their ballot.

Perhaps the Gingrich campaign organization would have been strengthened had Republican Party leaders stepped forward to endorse him, thereby generating additional donations or helping him bring onboard a larger group of seasoned campaign professionals. But this did not happen. In fact, Republican Party leaders were mostly leery of Gingrich’s success, just as they had been during the first Gingrich surge in December 2011. According to one news report, which cited “leading Republican figures,”

They said that if Mr. Gingrich won Florida, they anticipated further efforts to pressure leading Republicans, including former governors like Jeb Bush of Florida and Haley Barbour of Mississippi, as well as officials who passed up presidential runs this year, like Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, to help build a firewall around Mr. Romney.

They predicted intensifying criticism of Mr. Gingrich’s record and style, both through the Romney campaign and among conservative commentators who think having Mr. Gingrich as the nominee would sink the party’s chances of winning the White House.

If there was ever “fear and loathing on the campaign trail,” Gingrich seemed to cause it.

Just as it is hard to know how much the Romney campaign’s professionalism helped him, it is hard to know how much the Gingrich campaign’s amateurism hurt Gingrich. Nevertheless, Gingrich was not able to counteract this movement toward Romney. On election night in Florida, after Romney had trounced him by almost 15 points, Gingrich claimed to be “putting together a people’s campaign”—just as he had suggested after South Carolina. At this point, however, people were mostly leaving his campaign. Gingrich’s high-water mark in the campaign had passed, and his poll numbers would never recover.

The Santorum Surge

Romney seemed to be cruising after his Florida comeback. Four days later he won the Nevada caucuses handily, besting the runner-up, Gingrich, by almost 30 points. The following day, the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake summed up the status of the race by saying that Romney had “confirmed his status as the prohibitive front-runner,” while Gingrich had “fallen quickly” and Santorum “couldn’t pick up the pieces” after Gingrich’s collapse. Blake went on to express amazement that Santorum had chosen to focus on Colorado and Missouri rather than Nevada, concluding that “the payoff is pretty minimal for Santorum even if it works out.”

Well, it did work out. On February 7, Santorum won the Colorado and Minnesota caucuses as well as the nonbinding Missouri primary. Santorum beat Romney by almost 6 points in Colorado and by almost 30 points in both Minnesota and Missouri. In Minnesota, Romney actually came in third behind Santorum and Paul. It was, said the Huffington Post’s Jon Ward, “a very bad night for Romney.” He did far worse in these states than he did in 2008, when he won Colorado and Minnesota. Santorum, by contrast, “stunned the political world.” Was the outcome that surprising? Not entirely. Late polling showed Santorum in the lead in both Colorado and Minnesota. Perhaps the best signal of Romney’s impending losses was his own behavior: he began to attack Santorum and worked to lower expectations about his performance in these states.

How did Santorum do it? Certainly the electorate in these states was more favorable to Santorum. These states’ likely voters had larger concentrations of evangelicals. Pre-election polls also confirmed that evangelicals were more likely to support Santorum than Romney. For example, Santorum led Romney 37–27% among self-identified Colorado evangelicals, who were 45% of the poll’s sample, but trailed 18–46% among non-evangelicals. Moreover, turnout, especially in the caucuses, was low, and therefore caucus-goers and primary voters in these states may have been disproportionately activist conservatives who preferred Santorum to Romney. In the Colorado pre-election poll, Santorum led Romney among those who identified as “very conservative” but trailed him among those who identified as “somewhat conservative” or “moderate.” Such statistics support the explanation offered by the Washington Post’s Dan Balz: “the lack of enthusiasm for his [Romney’s] candidacy among conservatives.”

With so little pre-election polling and no exit polls in these three states, we cannot definitively establish how much their electorates were tilted toward evangelicals or any other constituency favorable to Santorum. But even if we assume that there was such a tilt, it alone was not sufficient to explain Santorum’s success. After all, Santorum had received relatively little national media coverage since the New Hampshire primary, and he received very little immediately before the Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri contests. These three states may have had a larger-than-average share of potential Santorum voters, but that could not explain why they became actual Santorum voters.

Certainly part of the answer was that Gingrich’s star fell so rapidly after Florida. This was evident in his lackluster fund-raising. It was also evident in his share of news coverage. When Gingrich was surging, as he was going into South Carolina, he—and not Santorum—was the first choice of groups like evangelicals and strong conservatives. He won both groups in South Carolina, according to the exit poll. But with Gingrich firmly in the “decline” phase, this created something of a vacuum that Santorum could fill.

Santorum filled it by outhustling the other candidates in these states, despite his seat-of-the-pants campaign. He did so in part with a little outside help and in part with the shoe-leather campaigning that even an underfunded campaign can do (much as he did in Iowa). And with the other candidates doing far less to contest these states, the information his campaigning produced—via advertisements, voter contact, rallies, and local news—likely helped him persuade and mobilize voters. Santorum’s campaign benefited from the support of a super-PAC, the Red White and Blue Fund (RWBF), largely funded by wealthy businessmen William Doré and Foster Friess. Thanks to their support, RWBF actually aired more ads in Missouri and Minnesota than did any other candidate or affiliated super-PAC. In the three weeks before the two caucuses and the primary, RWBF aired 121 ads in Missouri (no other candidate aired any) and 193 ads in Minnesota (Romney’s super-PAC aired 150 and Paul aired 125). In Colorado, where Romney did advertise and Santorum did not, RWBF organized a phone bank to mobilize Santorum voters.

Santorum also did quite a bit of work himself. In the seven days before these primaries—from January 31 to February 6—Santorum held nine events in Colorado, twelve in Minnesota, and two in Missouri. He held more events in each state than did Gingrich, Paul, and Romney combined. Gingrich appeared only once in Minnesota and once in Colorado, virtually guaranteeing—or perhaps acknowledging—that he would not rebound from his defeat in Florida by winning in one of these states. Romney appeared only once in Minnesota, twice in Colorado, and not at all in Missouri.

Santorum’s campaigning did not much affect his national news coverage, but it did appear to affect his local news coverage. We tabulated the number of mentions that Romney and Santorum received during this seven-day period in both the national news media and the local news media in each state. Overall, Romney received about five times as many mentions as Santorum in the national news—as one might expect given that Romney was the front-runner and Santorum mostly an afterthought. But in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri, Romney received roughly three times as many mentions. On the day before the caucuses and primary were held, Romney received only twice as many mentions. To generate even half as much local media attention as Romney was arguably an accomplishment for Santorum, a candidate who was polling in the single digits nationally and all but written off by many commentators.

In the wake of his trifecta, Santorum was “discovered” again, this time earning a far greater amount of media attention than he did after the Iowa caucus. This spike reflected how important it is for candidates not only to succeed but to succeed relative to the expectations of reporters and commentators. Santorum was expected to do well in Iowa, based on pre-election polling, but far fewer predicted his victories in these other three states. The day after the primary, he received 44% of the mentions of the Republican candidates. Except for a brief dip on the day when Romney won the Maine caucus and Ron Paul won the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Santorum received this level of attention for the rest of February. Santorum’s poll numbers increased as well. Prior to these primary victories, Santorum had been polling around 14%—down from 20% right after the Iowa caucus. After these primary victories, his poll numbers shot up 20 points, putting him even with or ahead of Romney in most polls. The increase in his poll numbers was particularly pronounced among social conservatives.

But Santorum’s challenges soon emerged, and they were very similar to Gingrich’s. Most important, he needed to win delegates. For all the attention his victories in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri received, they netted him exactly zero delegates. Missouri’s primary was simply a “beauty contest” with no bearing on delegate allocation. The Colorado and Minnesota caucuses—like the Iowa caucus—amounted to straw polls. They informed the selection of delegates to later state party conventions, where the actual dele gates were chosen, but there was no one-to-one relationship between the candidates’ share of votes in the caucuses and their share of the delegates chosen at these conventions. In this sense, Aaron Blake was absolutely correct: there was not much payoff to Santorum’s victories in terms of delegates.

What Santorum did get was, potentially, the momentum needed to win primaries with delegates up for grabs. But the next primaries, held three weeks later, were on less favorable terrain: Arizona and Michigan. In both states, the number of evangelicals and self-identified strong conservatives was lower than in Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, and Iowa. To compete effectively there, he would need a continued burst of positive news coverage, an effective retail campaign, or both.

He got neither of these things. The tenor of news coverage remained more positive than negative, but it became less positive as the Arizona and Michigan primaries approached.  This was once again due to the inevitable scrutiny that a front-runner receives. Not three days after his victories in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri, Santorum earned critical news attention for appearing to suggest that women were not equipped to serve in combat because of their “emotions.” He then clarified his statement, saying that he meant the emotions of men, who would have a “natural instinct” to protect women. About a week later, he was described as “defending” his remarks that Obama subscribed to a “phony theology” and that government-run schools were “anachronistic.”  Although not all media stories about Santorum featured such controversies, they nevertheless signaled that, as the New York Times’s Michael Shear put it, Santorum was “under more scrutiny for his background and positions.”

Few within the Republican Party rallied to Santorum’s side. Only one Republican member of Congress, Representative Robert Aderholt, endorsed him the wake of his victories in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri. Other leaders were either silent or outright fearful of a Santorum nomination. Republican governors were described as “looking on with apprehension to an autumn of defending Rick Santorum’s views.” One conservative columnist, the New York Times’s Ross Douthat, said that a Santorum candidacy in the general election “would almost certainly be a debacle.” A lack of party support did not help Santorum overcome another obstacle: his perennially underfunded and seat-of-the-pants campaign. It was difficult even to discern who worked on or advised Santorum’s “MacGyver model” of a campaign.

The lack of campaign professionals was something Santorum claimed as a virtue, saying that he refused to hire a pollster or field specialist because he was already in touch with Americans. But his campaign was reaching its limit operationally once again. At this point, Santorum did not have the luxury of setting up shop in Iowa for months on end or of campaigning under the radar in states like Minnesota and Missouri that Romney and the other candidates were not contesting. As the new front-runner, Santorum would be challenged all the time and everywhere. He could not keep up.

In Michigan, Santorum (and his affiliated super-PAC) at least made it competitive—airing just over 5,700 ads to Romney’s nearly 6,700. This was in an apparent attempt to defeat Romney on his home turf, where his father, George, had been governor and where the polls were essentially tied. The Santorum camp was pleased simply to make Romney spend money in what might have been a safe state. “No matter what the results are, we’ve won. This is Romney’s home state,” said Santorum advisor John Brabender. But in Arizona, where Restore Our Future aired over 1,000 ads in roughly the month before the primary, the majority of which attacked Santorum, Santorum aired no ads. In the Super Tuesday states, Santorum was also buried. Romney or Restore Our Future aired over 12,600 ads in Georgia, Idaho, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Santorum aired none and his affiliated super-PAC aired only about 760. Put another way, in these states Romney aired about seventeen ads for every one of Santorum’s. The same was true after Super Tuesday: Romney’s spending in Alabama and Mississippi vastly exceeded that of Santorum and Gingrich.

To be sure, Romney’s spending did not guarantee him victories. He did win in Michigan and Arizona, but on Super Tuesday Gingrich won more votes in his home state of Georgia, while Santorum won more votes in North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Santorum also won more  votes than Romney in Alabama and Mississippi. But Romney’s spending, combined with the sequence of states, meant that he was rarely competing at any significant disadvantage for long. On Super Tuesday he won the most votes in Alaska, Idaho, Massachusetts, Ohio, Vermont, and Virginia—states where the electorates were less tilted toward constituencies that tended to prefer Gingrich or Santorum. Immediately after Alabama and Mississippi, the race moved to Illinois, which was much more favorable terrain for Romney.

Santorum’s inability to halt Romney’s path to the nomination was illustrated most clearly in how the news covered him. After coverage of Santorum spiked in mid-February, it became largely dependent on his successes in primaries and caucuses. When Romney won, Santorum’s share of coverage dropped—for example, as it did after the Arizona and Michigan primaries and again after Super Tuesday. When Santorum won, as he did in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, his share of coverage went up. The same was not true for Romney, whose share of coverage remained largely static whether he won or lost. Even more telling is the tone of the news coverage. Beginning in the middle of February and continuing through his exit from the race, news coverage of Santorum grew less and less favorable, no matter whether he won or lost.

Santorum’s poll numbers also dropped somewhat from their peak after the Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota contests—leveling off at roughly 27% throughout March, which was about 5–6 points behind Romney. This stasis worked to Santorum’s disadvantage. For one, his poll numbers and news coverage were mutually self-reinforcing. Initially his successes in primaries and caucuses drove news coverage, which in turn drove polls. But over time, his polls both reflected and influenced news coverage—and without a sustained lead in the polls, it was likely that his news coverage would become less favorable, as it did.

Ultimately, whatever Santorum’s strengths among certain elements of the Republican Party, he could not effectively unify the party. Santorum himself seemed to realize this. Right before the Illinois primary, Santorum suggested that he would not win except by the most divisive means: a brokered convention where, he declared, “The convention will nominate a conservative. They will not nominate the establishment moderate candidate from Massachusetts.” Others in the party did not want the fight to go that far and started endorsing Romney—as did Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan at the end of March— and suggesting that Santorum should give up. “Santorum Ignores Pressure to Bow Out to Romney,” was the New York Times headline on March 25, citing the sentiments of former governors Jeb Bush and Haley Barbour as well as Senators Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham, who were apparently not swayed by Santorum’s victory in the Louisiana primary the day before. A week later, Santorum was not being covered even on Fox News, which suggested that Fox implicitly believed Romney would be the nominee. Faced not only with this pressure but with the hospitalization of his daughter on April 6 as well as polls that suggested he might even lose the primary in his home state of Pennsylvania, Santorum suspended his campaign on April 10. About a month later he endorsed Romney, just as Gingrich, who finally dropped out on April 25, had done.

Excerpted from "The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election" by John Sides & Lynn Vavreck. Copyright © 2013 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.

By John Sides

MORE FROM John Sides

By Lynn Vavreck

MORE FROM Lynn Vavreck

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2012 Elections Conservatism Editor's Picks Gop Mitt Romney Rick Santorum Writers And Writing