OSKALOOSA, IOWA—Seemingly out of nowhere, Rick Santorum became the trendy pick to win the Iowa caucuses over the weekend. A CNN poll put Santorum slowly rising to third last Wednesday, but that was already old news when the Des Moines Register released its much-vaunted Iowa Poll on Saturday night.
The top-line numbers showed the race everyone had foreseen over the past several weeks: a neck-and-neck campaign between Mitt Romney and Ron Paul for the top spot. Santorum finished in third with 15 percent—a significant rise since his last place showing in the previous month's poll but not within striking distance of the top two. But the trend lines in the poll told a different story; Santorum jumped to a strong second in the final two days of the poll (Thursday and Friday), and if he continued to rise at that pace he would easily surpass the rest of the field by Tuesday. That perception was backed up last night with the latest numbers from Public Policy Polling, which put Santorum, Paul and Romney in an essential tie, all within two points on one another.
The press reacted accordingly and overwhelmed Santorum's recent events; curious potential supporters flocked to see him as well. It was a remarkable contrast to just several weeks ago, when fewer than 10 reporters and 30 Iowans could be often found attending Santorum's many town hall events.
Santorum is peaking at the right moment, but he is hardly the first Republican to surge in the polls this year: Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich were also granted similar moments in the sun only to drop back down to their realistic floor. Naturally, there is skepticism about whether Santorum's bump is anything more than the changing of the guard to yet another anti-Romney candidate. "The question in Iowa right now is: Are Iowa Republicans finally waking to the wonders of the two-term senator," Slate's John Dickerson writes, "or is Santorum simply the latest candidate who is not Mitt Romney? Voters have been on a constant rummage through the bin, looking for an alternative."
There's no doubt that Santorum has benefited from the shifting anti-Romneyism. But his Iowa boomlet is of an entirely different nature than the previous ones. When the others bounced into the upper echelon, voters in Iowa were first discovering them for the first time—or, in the case of Gingrich, rediscovering the former speaker after many years. Those flashes were all based on limited ideas about the candidates, which were easily torn down once voters became further acquainted with the Republican in question.
Santorum, on the other hand, has never been far from Iowa Republicans' minds—the back of their minds, at least. He’s spent a year blanketing the state for small local events. He's the only candidate save Bachmann who has made it to all 99 Iowa counties. A few weeks ago, Santorum continually came up when I asked Iowans whom they were considering. They would rank him as the most consistent conservative and the candidate who aligns with their personal convictions. But they worried that supporting him would be a waste.
That dynamic started to shift shortly before Christmas. Prominent members of Iowa's religious right began signaling their support for Santorum. First there was Sioux City pastor Cary Gordon, one of the preachers in the state who has blurred distinctions between the pews and voting booths. Lest anyone miss the headlines, Pastor Gordon blasted 800,000 Iowa cell phones with a text message announcing his endorsement. Santorum also picked up support from Matt Schultz, the young secretary of state elected in 2010 who is a popular figure among the Tea Party sect. Schultz's endorsement marked significant establishment support, as every other top-ranking elected state official has declined to announce a favorite. The state's evangelical standard-bearer, Bob Vander Plaats, lent Santorum further credibility, and his PAC cut ads touting Santorum.
The pro-life, anti-LGBT leadership had illuminated its Bat Signal over Gotham—or the cornfields of northwestern Iowa in this case—to indicate that the wavering social-conservative crowd should settle on Santorum.
All that was left was a factoid that could ease concerns that a vote for Santorum was a vote down the drain. That late Christmas present came wrapped neatly in the CNN poll, which handily only sampled registered Republicans—a group that was likely to overstate Santorum's significance, since the Iowa caucus will also draw independents and even a few Democrats.
Some have implied that the CNN poll's sampling error ended up being a self-fulfilling outcome—which certainly doesn’t bother Santorum's backers. "He was in single digits all this time, but as soon as you put a one in front of it, now all of a sudden there's viability and boom we're off," Chuck Laudner, one of Santorum's top aides, told me last week.
Any finish in the top three will likely be enough for Santorum to capture a significant share of the post-Iowa headlines. But the oddities of caucus procedure could produce an even more convincing victory for Santorum than current polls predict.
Before Iowans write down the name of their preferred candidate on a slip of paper tomorrow night, they'll have to sit through speeches by campaign surrogates. You can be sure the same argument will be made all across the 1,774 precincts: If you believe in faith and family, Rick Santorum is the candidate you've wanted to vote for all year—and he is now poised as the only candidate who can derail that Massachusetts Mormon from corrupting your party. It's an argument that would have fallen on deaf ears as little as two weeks ago but now might just have enough resonance to turn Santorum into this year's Mike Huckabee.