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February 15, 2012 9:27 AM Santorum Puzzler

By Jonathan Bernstein

There’s a bunch of new, good stuff out there speculating about Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, and exactly where the GOP race is now. I recommend Steve Kornacki, Ed Kilgore, and Nate Silver. I may have more to say about that in a bit, but for now I have a somewhat different question: why now, and not a month ago? That is, why has Santorum had a full, no-doubt-about-it national polling surge after his wins in Colorado and Minnesota, but not after Iowa? And it certainly mattered, in my view; had he had this surge in the first week of January, it’s very possible he could have finished second in New Hamsphire and won South Carolina, and right now he’d either have it wrapped up or be close. So why not then?

First possibility: I know what you’re all thinking; it’s because he didn’t actually win Iowa; or, more to the point, because he wasn’t the announced winner. And that’s certainly possible. But I don’t believe it. Gary Hart finished a very weak second in Iowa and then a shocking win in New Hampshire, after all. That’s why I predicted in advance that Santorum would get basically the same surge whether he finished first, second, or third (behind Romney and Paul, that is). Santorum would have been the unknown candidate with a surprise placing; that should have been enough to receive a flood of favorable publicity, and all year that’s meant a polling surge.

I’m not sure I’ll convince anyone, but I believe it, which sends me looking for other options:

Second possibility: Pundits had radically discounted Santorum because of the Huck in 2008, and perhaps others going back to Pat Robertson in 1988.

Third possibility: Santorum was helped last week by how few polls there were; while he was a surprise in the days leading up to Iowa, he wasn’t much of a surprise that day. On the other hand, there were very few polls of CO/MN (and Missouri), and so his wins were a big surprise. No surprise, no positive coverage.

Fourth possibility: Three states trump one state. Possible, but seems unlikely to me.

Fifth possibility: Newt wasn’t dead yet after Iowa, and the press loves him — he got some of what Santorum had earned. By CO/MN, the press finally realized that Newt was really dead.

Sixth possibility: Santorum muffed the Iowa spin. He waited until late at night to deliver a victory speech, and then failed (in some way?) to capitalize on it over the next couple of days, including in GOP debates that weekend.

Seventh possibility: Because there were two upcoming debates and a big primary in New Hampshire in only seven days, the press got distracted from Iowa. After CO/MN, there was nothing up next for a while, so those stayed in the news cycle longer.

Eighth possibility: It wasn’t a press story; it was a GOP party story. GOP elites were sending strong signals (were they?) after Iowa that Santorum was going nowhere. After CO/MN, they weren’t. Note: this one is entirely speculative; I don’t know what signals if any were being sent in either case.

Ninth possibility: delayed third-candidate effect. It wasn’t about CO/MN at all; it was a result of Romney and Newt spending a couple of weeks attacking each other viciously. Problem: Santorum wasn’t running an entirely positive campaign either — but then again, perhaps no one noticed what he was doing.

And, finally, tenth possibility: Had Santorum won Iowa easily or finished a solid second or solid third, he would have received a bounce. A very, very close second didn’t work because it set up a “who’s the loser” story that was, for the time, answered with “Santorum.” If Romney had won by ten points, the cable nets would have rapidly pivoted off the “who is winning?” story to a “who is this Santorum guy?” story.

So which of these is correct? I have no idea! I like 2, 3, and 10, and perhaps a bit of 6, but I really don’t know. I’m not even sure I know what kind of evidence one could use to study this, although I am interested in knowing what Fox News and Rush Limbaugh were saying on January 3-4 and February 7-8. If anyone has any thoughts on all this, or even better any real evidence, I’m very interested.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.