by Matthew Raley
When I watched Rick Santorum’s debate performances over the last several months, I was struck by two things. First, his answers were unusually direct and fluent. He didn’t waste time trying to be charming (like Rick Perry) or delivering scripted zingers (like Michelle Bachmann). He seemed to have no use for evasion. His answers showed that he had become effective taking questions from small groups. Second, he routinely tied his answers to the concerns of Iowans, mentioning their towns and counties with the ease of a man who’d spent a year touring them.
It reminded me of John Kerry’s strategy in 2004, disappearing from the national radar as an apparently hopeless candidate wandering ridiculously local precincts. Then he won the caucuses, snatched New Hampshire, and secured the nomination. It helped that Kerry had a post-Iowa plan, and as a northeasterner could make a serious instant play for the Granite State.
Last night, Santorum came within 8 votes of winning Iowa.
Unlike Mike Huckabee, who ran a classic insurgent, seat-of-the-pants campaign after his Iowa win in 2008, Santorum appears to have planned for the campaign after Iowa, and planned realistically. In addition, Santorum is deeper than Huckabee was in expertise and experience. Further, as a Pennsylvanian, he is a near neighbor to New Hampshire — hardly comparable to a southerner running up there. Santorum also has advantages among the candidates that Huckabee lacked. Bachmann is out of the race this morning. Perry went back in Texas. With Newt Gingrich going negative against Mitt Romney in New Hampshire, just as Romney pounded Gingrich in Iowa, I don’t see any reason why Santorum isn’t well-placed to win the first primary.
His main problem is that he has not passed the plausibility tests of what Mark Halperin called the Gang of 500, the media and political heavyweights candidates court before anyone votes. Santorum has never been regarded as serious by this group. National Review, only a couple months ago, referred to him as a “no-hoper.”
But the group of Americans who will determine which way the 2012 elections go, blue collar voters, don’t give a rip what the Gang of 500 thinks. In the dynamic of identity politics, in which people vote for the candidate who most represents their status and way of life, Santorum has the opportunity to walk away with blue collar voters. He lives where they live, and he has a family story that is compelling to them. When he says the word work, his inflection is their inflection.
Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and Bachmann have all demonstrated the power of this identification, but lacked the political seriousness and intellect to give it shape. They are creatures of cable: glib, not substantive. On the campaign trial, they seemed to believe that soundbites really would win out.
Santorum may stumble. He may have a secret like Herman Cain. More likely, he may not be able to create the structure of a national campaign quickly enough. If so, he will lose this opportunity. But I’ll go out on a limb: I think he’ll lock up the blue collar vote.
Predictions aside, the lesson I take from Iowa is that media dominance over society is an illusion.
Presidential campaigns prove every four years that it is street appeal and a solid game on the ground that puts a candidate over the top on election day. These two things have to be real. They cannot be produced through media, and the history of presidential campaigns is littered with candidates who’ve tried. To be sure, the two can be expressed through media, and must be. The campaign that best expresses the candidate’s street appeal through media and integrates its ground game with media will win. But no medium replaces shoe leather.
That is the ongoing relevance of Iowa and New Hampshire to American politics.
And this lesson is a healthy correction to the superficiality that congests our nation’s life. No business will survive without addition and subtraction actually revealing a profit. A volunteer organization cannot serve the community with a polished image. No church will build people up with Christianish entertainment, demographically driven activities, and happy slogans.
Down with marketing. Up with work.