By Mark Rhoads
I cannot explain any of this using the normal logic of money and politics, but Rick Santorum now leads the GOP field in every national tracking poll. It makes no sense at all, even on the momentum of a three-state sweep for Santorum in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado on February 7, because that did not make any sense either, especially in the latter two states where Romney had all the money and endorsements. On Thursday, February 16, Rasmussen released a poll for Ohio GOP primary voters that gave Santorum a lead of 42 percent to 24 percent over Romney in that state.
Santorum now leads the field in the same rust belt upper midwest states where Obama is weakest, which adds another wrinkle to the Santorum electability argument. Ohio is the most populous of the ten states that vote on Super Tuesday (March 6). Santorum also leads in all the polls in Romney’s “home state” of Michigan which votes along with Arizona on February 28. Romney has led in Arizona but the data is now more than a week old and events are moving fast and momentum can change direction just as fast. Gingrich leads in Georgia, which also votes on Super Tuesday. But according to Rasmussen, even a majority of Santorum supporters think Romney will eventually be the nominee so it is clear that the Romney campaign of psychological warfare against his competitors - that his nomination is inevitable - has worked up until now. But it cannot continue to work very long if he loses real states in real results to Santorum. We will start to find out in about 12 days.
There is no obvious event that would account for the Santorum surge since Florida voted, except for the fall of Newt Gingrich to less relevance in the race and the fall of Romney due to his own campaign choices and lack of any vision that ordinary voters can relate to besides his own resume. David Ogilvy, the founder of modern advertising, often said, “It is not your grass seed they care about, it is how their lawn will look.” Romney wants to sell us grass seed but we have no clue how our lawn will look if we buy it from him. His ability to sell the seed is not all that interesting to us because we have our own lives to care about and do not have a lot of extra time to devote to worrying about which GOP politician gets to live in the White House - apart from the fact that many of us want the current residents to move back to Chicago or Hawaii.
At root, the Romney problem is a lack of vision for us. He is not Obama and that is good as far as it goes. But Santorum, Gingrich, and Paul are not Obama either. I think it was just really swell that Romney was able to make the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City such a nice event for those who attended or watched on TV, but they did not really affect my daily life then or have any impact on me today, ten years later. But the precedent of Romneycare in Massachusetts in 2005 - including an individual purchase mandate - set the stage for Obamacare with an individual purchase mandate on a national basis, and for that I am not grateful to Romney at all.
So how is it possible that Rick Santorum with so little money or endorsements is doing well enough to challenge Romney’s millions of dollars and paid organization in so many states? How does any of this make any sense? For one thing, there is such a thing as too much money in politics. When the press says Romney has all the money and organization, what they really mean is all the money. The Romney organization is only money because it is paid staffers in most states and very few real volunteers. Why would even someone who likes Romney volunteer their time after work or outside the home to work at a phone bank? Romney does not need more volunteers because volunteers are an extra element to worry about. Volunteers are not predictable and they can confuse the campaign message about how successful the Winter Olympics were ten years ago and why we should all be so grateful for that now.
Rick Santorum has very little money, he needs money and he needs volunteers to do the work the Romney paid staffers do in most states. When a small donor gives to Santorum, he or she will not forget that investment and will not forget to vote on election day. If they say prayers for Santorum and his family, they will get others out to vote as well. That is why the Santorum v. Romney battle now seems to echo the battle of David against Goliath. The giant has all the money. It might not stay that way very long because Romney can still buy a lot of TV time to boost himself and attack Santorum. If I promise to send another contribution to Santorum when I see a Romney negative ad, and if enough other people feel the same way, the smug Romney campaign staffers will not serve their otherwise decent candidate very well because Santorum has a message and the Romney machine does not seem to have found a compelling message. We will know very soon if money alone can trump every other element of a GOP national primary campaign.
Whenever I am tempted to think money is all there is to politics, I remember the famous campaign of Jane Byrne for the Democratic nomination for mayor of Chicago in the winter snow storm of 1979. Her total budget was $100,000 to defeat Mayor Michael Bilandic and the Chicago Democratic machine. She spent almost all of it on one TV commercial that showed her standing in the snow while the City Council was praising Bilandic for the great job he was doing cleaning up the storm. In fact, people were miserable and could not get to work because the side streets never saw snow plows. Byrne beat the machine for the fist time since 1931 when Anton Cermak beat the Al Capone-tainted GOP machine of Big Bill Thompson.
But only four years later, Jane Byrne had done such a terrible job in office that even after she raised $10 million she could not win renomination and was defeated in the 1983 Democratic primary by Harold Washington, who had far less money but far more popular support.
So money and TV ads are not everything even in politics.
A version of this article was published simultaneously in Illinois Review