A Caucus Lesson: Quality Matters

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When it comes to retail campaign events, quality still matters.


Here’s one lesson from former Sen. Rick Santorum’s strong Iowa caucus showing: When it comes to retail campaign events, quality still matters. 

It wasn’t just the sheer number of events Santorum held—381 across Iowa, by his own count—that helped him keep pace with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucus. It was the quality and substance of Santorum’s retail events that connected with voters and ultimately helped fuel his late surge, say two Iowa-based strategists.   

“When we talk about retail campaigning, we’re talking about value,” says Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Iowa Republican Party. “It’s about really giving people the opportunity to meet you and engage with you as a candidate. Santorum offered Iowa voters more opportunity to do that than anyone else.”

Romney won Iowa by the narrowest of margins, besting Santorum by just 8 votes.

In several of the more rural Iowa counties Santorum carried Tuesday, his retail efforts over the course of the last year were unmatched, say observers. On top of that, says Robinson, compare a typical Santorum retail stop in Iowa over the past few weeks to that of one from Rep. Michele Bachmann or Gov. Rick Perry and it’s not tough to see why caucus goers came around to the former senator.

“One Bachmann event that I attended—she was 50 minutes late, she stayed for about 12 minutes and she gave no formal remarks," remembers Robinson. "Rick Perry? He takes three questions and he’s gone. Santorum is the one who really gave you the opportunity to hear him and kick the tires a bit.” 

Despite Romney's win, Santorum was undoubtedly the story Tuesday night into early Wednesday morning. In a contest that to this point has been driven largely by televised debates and Super PAC spending, Santorum's vote total was a victory for the more traditional nose-to-the-grindstone model of retail campaigning.    

Steve Grubbs, a former chairman of the Iowa GOP and lead strategist in the state for Herman Cain’s campaign earlier this cycle, says Santorum’s strength proves “quality and quantity matter. Rick Santorum clearly had both.”

Grubbs says the goal of the Santorum model in Iowa was similar to the approach Steve Forbes took to retail events in the state ahead of the caucus in 2000. Forbes finished second to then Texas Gov. George W. Bush that year.

"Back then we didn't want to do events where you popped in for just a few minutes, shook some hands and then left," says Grubbs. "What's important is establishing a relationship. So as opposed to 99 counties in 10 days, we did about 70 counties in 30 days [on the Forbes campaign]."

Ultimately, says Robinson, the cycle was one of missed opportunities in Iowa.

"Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Gingrich all missed their opportunity in Iowa," says Robinson. "The real lesson is that the time to be here is when you're surging so you can capitalize on that. None of them did it right."   


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