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October 4th, 2011
 

Santorum’s 99-County Formula: Will It Work?

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There is a simple formula for winning a statewide election in Iowa. It is time tested and proven. It helped Terry Branstad become a five-term governor and Chuck Grassley a six-term U.S. Senator. Bob Vander Plaats used the same formula earlier this year to garner support for his Family Leader organization. The most effective way to win a statewide election in Iowa is to visit all 99 counties.

Branstad tells GOP presidential hopefuls that touring all 99 counties is the path to victory in Iowa. He should know. Branstad’s electoral record is 12-0. He and Grassley make it a point of pride to tour all 99 counties every single year.

Only one GOP presidential candidate seems serious about putting this method to use. Following a three-day swing through the state that wrapped up Monday, Santorum has now visited 70 of Iowa’s 99 counties. He hopes to make stops in all of them before the Iowa Caucus.

“Instead of just concentrating on the middle of the state where Des Moines is and Ames, we’re going all around the state,” Santorum said. “We’re approaching 70 counties and I don’t know if all the candidates combined have been to 70 counties. We feel very, very good about going out and talking to the folks and building our grassroots out here in the rural areas.”

The 99-county plan makes a lot of sense for presidential hopefuls. Many caucus goers will not vote for a candidate they have not met in person. When fifth district congressman Steve King was trying to garner support for Fred Thompson in the 2008 race, he ran into resistance from conservatives in Lyon County because Thompson had not visited there.

However, there are drawbacks with the 99-county plan. It is extremely time consuming. It is tiring. And it can prove to be a humbling experience. The candidates love to see huge, adoring crowds of hundreds of supporters. You do not see those in every county in Iowa. Visiting all 99 counties means sometimes speaking to small groups in small towns. Rick Santorum faced that during his most recent tour, with crowds of a dozen or so in places like Chariton, Corydon and Toledo.

The small crowds are partly indicative of Santorum’s lack of success in the polls. His hard work in Iowa has not translated into successful numbers. The former Pennsylvania senator languishes in the low single digits nationally. Those numbers prevented Santorum from appearing at a recent presidential forum and could exclude him from future debates.

2008 Iowa Caucus winner Mike Huckabee can relate to Santorum’s conundrum. He was still speaking to small crowds in the weeks following a strong second place finish in the 2007 Ames Straw Poll. One attendee at a stop in Vinton on Monday told Santorum he would really like to support him, but is concerned about his low poll numbers and whether or not he has the ability to win.

“Four years ago, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson were one and two at 20 something percent and Mike Huckabee was at four or five percent and John McCain was probably at 10 percent,” Santorum responded. “Those two guys at the top did not get a single delegate. People in Iowa actually made a decision. You actually went out and said ‘We’re not going to listen to what these pundits say, we’re going to actually vote for the guy we think is the best guy.’

The stop in Vinton was the final event of Santorum’s latest tour. A crowd of 45 listened intently to his message for an hour and a half, with most of the time spent asking questions. They do not see many presidential candidates there. State representative Dawn Pettingill, whose district includes Benton County, said no other candidate has visited the county this cycle.

“I have been a big proponent of getting the presidential candidates to tour Iowa and have let it be known that if you don’t come to rural Iowa, don’t bother asking for my support,” Pettingill told the crowd in Vinton. “So I’m very pleased he’s here.” Pettingill endorsed Santorum after the event.

Santorum knows his only chance at clinching the GOP nomination is a top two or three finish in Iowa, if not an outright victory. Despite the low poll numbers and lack of fundraising success, he expresses confidence that will happen.

“Our time will come,” Santorum said. “No one else is working Iowa like I am. No one else is doing this. I challenge any one of the folks running for president to come here and answer questions like I’ve answered in the detail that I’ve answered them. They’re not doing it. Why? They can’t do it.”

People who live in rural Iowa are extremely appreciative when politicians pay attention to them. They often feel ignored by their elected officials and their needs are trumped by whatever is best for the Des Moines metro area. One common complaint about former Iowa governor Chet Culver during his one term was that most small town Iowans never had a chance to see or hear from him. That is part of the reason Branstad defeated him in 90 out of 99 counties.

The Iowa Caucus universe is much smaller than a guberenatorial election. A few hundred votes could make the difference between continuing on to New Hampshire and going home. Santorum now ends each tour stop asking attendees to sign up as precinct captains and county leaders for the Iowa Caucus. That push is vital. The first-in-the-nation vote comes in just three months. Rural Iowans will show up on caucus night. Many of them will refuse to vote for a candidate they have not met.


About the Author

Kevin Hall
Kevin Hall brings almost two decades of journalistic experience to TheIowaRepublican. Starting in college as a radio broadcaster, Hall eventually became a television anchor/reporter for stations in North Carolina, Missouri, and Iowa. During the 2007 caucus cycle, Hall changed careers and joined the political realm. He was the northwest Iowa field director for Fred Thompson's presidential campaign. Hall helped Terry Branstad return to the governor's office by organizing southwest Iowa for Branstad's 2010 campaign. Hall serves as a reporter/columnist for TheIowaRepublican.com.




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