Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum speaks to a reporter after the Lincoln Dinner in Des Moines on Saturday, May 16, 2015. Santorum ran for president in 2012, but eventually lost the candidacy to Mitt Romney. (The Daily Iowan/Sergio Flores)
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum speaks to a reporter after the Lincoln Dinner in Des Moines on Saturday, May 16, 2015. Santorum ran for president in 2012, but eventually lost the candidacy to Mitt Romney. (The Daily Iowan/Sergio Flores)

Republicans signal trouble with Santorum’s Iowa strategy and longevity

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Leading Iowa GOP power brokers and conservative organizers say former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s 2016 campaign is ill-managed and his shot at winning Iowa, as he did four years ago, has passed. 

By Quentin Misiag | quentin-misiag@uiowa.edu 

Ask a slate of Iowa Republicans what exactly has happened to Rick Santorum in the 2016 presidential contest, and they fire back with a laundry list of problems facing the dark-horse former senator from 2012.

He lacks the money to compete with more personality-driven candidates (think business magnate and reality TV star Donald Trump).

The state and national campaign orbits that are promoting his messages are poorly managed.

He severed his once-strong ties with Iowa too soon.

Whatever the individual reasons, influential party power brokers and grass-roots organizers interviewed for this story all agree: The man who beat the GOP’s last nominee, Mitt Romney, in 11 states and rose to the level of conservative champion four years ago, is no more.

santorum99“People are just looking right over Santorum,” said Josh Bakker, the chairman of the Lyon County Republican Party, where Santorum clocked his 99th county visit as a part of his second “Full Grassley” tour of Iowa.

RELATED: Martin O’Malley commits to ‘Full Grassley’ tour of Iowa

In 2012, Bakker supported Santorum, calling him “the best of the field.” Now, Santorum is not even a blip on Bakker’s radar.

“He’s not in my circle of candidates that I like just because he had the chance already,” Bakker said.

At best, Santorum could finish in third or fourth place in the Iowa caucuses this year, many party organizers predicted.

Several experts who keep tabs on presidential politics in Iowa, including University of Iowa Associate Professor of political science Tim Hagle, noted that Santorum, not former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, or Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who needed to do rise to the top during the CNN GOP debate on Sept. 16.

RELATED: Iowa political watchers: Fiorina, Christie, Rubio excel in first CNN main debate

Had he taken the nationally televised opportunity to lay out policy plans, he could have extended his political foothold in Iowa, Hagle said.

Historically, GOP runners-up are more likely to be favored in future presidential bids.

But with several well-known Republicans with skin in the game, Santorum has struggled to climb from the bottom rung of candidates in state and national polling.

He captured only 1 percent of support among registered voters in the two most recent Washington Post-ABC News polls.

The polls, conducted by landline and cell phones from Sept. 7-10 in English and Spanish with 1,003 results, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

At his peak, he received 4 percent in late May.

santorumSeveral leading Republicans said they have witnessed dozens of once-loyal Santorum supporters gravitate toward supporting Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

In the last contest, Santorum’s political prowess was elevated thanks to his visiting all of Iowa’s counties, analysts said.

But with a shifting retail-politics environment and 14 other rivals in his party, Republicans frimly believe that the political magic from his “Full Grassley” won’t help him compete here.

“In the past, it was much more face-to-face retail politics,” said Sioux County GOP Chairman and Edward Jones financial adviser Mark Lundberg. “This day and age, it’s very different. It’s almost a waste of time for them to go off in a little coffee shop and meet with six people.”

Santorum has made or is expected to make eight campaign stops this month, ranging from a town-hall event at Wartburg College to drop-ins at a few pizza restaurants, according to preliminary campaign itinerary.

Lundberg, one of a few organizers arranging an upcoming four-candidate fundraiser in Orange City on Oct. 30, said Santorum was an easy grab for the event, even though many of his supporters from four years ago are now gravitating toward Cruz and Fiorina.

RELATED: Four GOP White House hopefuls to headline northwestern Iowa rally

“We knew we could call Santorum’s people and we could get him here,” Lundberg said. “I just don’t see him getting any traction this cycle.”

When Santorum failed to pump money into the 2014 U.S. Senate campaign of Sam Clovis, a conservative radio-show host from Sioux City, many northwestern Iowa conservatives perceived a lack of loyalty.

2012 Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum and his daughter Elizabeth, visit the Hamburg Inn in Iowa City on November 17th, 2011. Santorum talked to restaurant visitors about his foreign policy plans. (The Daily Iowan/File Photo)

2012 Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum and his daughter Elizabeth, visit the Hamburg Inn in Iowa City on November 17th, 2011. Santorum talked to restaurant visitors about his foreign policy plans. (The Daily Iowan/File Photo)

“When the time came to help Sam, Mr. Santorum was nowhere to be seen,” said Don Kass, who chairs the Plymouth County Republicans. “If he would’ve stuck around, he would’ve been better off.”

In June, Santorum’s campaign reported it had raised roughly $607,000 during the second quarter of 2015. Already toward the low end of fundraising by presidential candidates, Santorum blew through more than 60 percent of that amount. He had less than $240,000 in cash on hand as of the end of June.

RELATED: Iowa analysts: Fiorina’s crusade not without complications 

Since a handful of key staffers fled Santorum’s second presidential campaign apparatus in August to establish a new super PAC to support him, things haven’t been the same, Iowa Republicans maintain.

Karen Fesler, a prominent eastern Iowa party activist who helped bring Santorum’s 2012 rhetoric to national audiences, had jumped ship from Santorum’s campaign to that of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. She served as Iowa co-head until Perry dropped out last month.

“For the most part, we are going with the same formula that worked for us last time,” said Fesler, who now serves as Santorum’s National Caucus Coalition adviser.

Refuting the notion that Santorum’s campaign is a lost cause, as many state Republicans say, Fesler said campaign data show his favorability rating is higher than that this time in 2011.

Fesler — who said she had no idea how many staffers the campaign employs in Iowa or across the country or how many offices the campaign has opened — remained positive about the candidate’s underdog status.

“We feel good about where we are and what position we’re in,” she said.

RELATED: Meet the people in Joe Biden’s Iowa arsenal

But with a lack of online or television ad campaigns and a cash-strapped operation, many party leaders aren’t buying what Santorum is selling.

“I’m not going to sit here and say he has no prayer,” Kass said. “He’s not polling too far behind Jeb Bush, but you’re not going to see Bush pull out anytime soon.

“The difference between the two is a couple hundred million dollars.”

Laughter ensued.

 

Follow Quentin Misiag on Twitter @quentin_misiag for analysis on the Iowa caucuses pertaining to Martin O’Malley, Carly Fiorina, and Donald Trump.