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'Sugar Daddies' And Debates Changing All The Rules

Mitt Romney works Thursday in Michigan aboard his campaign bus, which displays a poster for his late father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney. Despite deep roots in the state, Romney finds himself battling a candidate who has barely visited.
Gerald Herbert
Mitt Romney works Thursday in Michigan aboard his campaign bus, which displays a poster for his late father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney. Despite deep roots in the state, Romney finds himself battling a candidate who has barely visited.

By the time Rick Santorum showed up in Michigan, he was already out in front.

Thursday's speech before the Detroit Economic Club amounted to the former Pennsylvania senator's political debut in the state, coming less than two weeks before Michigan votes in a Feb. 28 Republican primary.

Nonetheless, Santorum arrived in the state sitting at the top of the polls. It's a big break from the way things used to be.

"He has nothing here," says Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics. "He doesn't have the organization, he has no endorsements, he's raised no money here. He's literally coming into the state for the first time."

Candidates with no campaign structure or visible support on the ground aren't supposed to win. And former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney may still prevail in a contest where he had long been favored.

So far, though, Romney's apparent advantages — he has spent years campaigning in the state, he picked up the endorsement of GOP Gov. Rick Snyder on Thursday, and his dad was governor and a top auto executive there decades ago — have not been enough to keep him on top.

All of that illustrates that the normal rules of presidential politicking have been upended by factors that are new this time around, such as superPACs and the proliferation of candidate debates.

"It's changed dramatically in just four years," Ballenger says.

"Remember what Woody Allen said about life — 90 percent is showing up?" he says. "Santorum's on top without having set foot in the state."

Billionaire Buddies

In olden times — like four years ago — Santorum might already have dropped out of the race at this point, suggests Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta.

The difference has been the rise of superPACs, committees not strictly affiliated with candidate campaigns that nonetheless allow a single rich individual to keep a candidate afloat.

Billionaires Foster Friess and Sheldon Adelson have poured millions into superPACs supportive of Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, respectively — candidates who normally would have been expected to call it quits after poor showings in early-voting states. Under the old set of rules, their fundraising support would have dried up.

"The truth is, Newt Gingrich would have been out of it a long time ago, were it not for Sheldon Adelson," says Mark Mellman, a Democratic consultant. "One person has the ability to prop up a candidate, and that hasn't been the case since we had the post-Watergate reforms."

Media-Based Campaign

If having your own "sugar daddy" is helpful, as Abramowitz suggests, then candidates running this year have had to adapt to a changed media environment.

Even in states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, the old emphasis on one-on-one campaigning has given way to a singular focus on candidate debates.

"In the early states, we still had a lot of retail politics, but maybe not as much as we used to," says former New Hampshire Attorney General Tom Rath, a Romney supporter. "Having four or five months of nearly weekly nationally televised debates — in effect, these were the retail politics, having them come into your living room every week."

The debates have provided crucial platforms for underfunded candidates — widely credited, for instance, with propelling Gingrich to victory in the South Carolina primary last month.

There, says veteran Republican pollster Ed Goeas, who worked last year for Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann's campaign, "Gingrich was getting 49 percent of the vote among those who saw all the debates, 34 percent among those who watched most of them, 21 percent of those who saw some, and 8 percent of those who had seen none of the debates."

One reason Gingrich is struggling, Goeas suggests, is that February's sole debate has yet to occur. Poor debate performances have also broken candidates, notably Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

The point is, debates have been a primary avenue of exposure, with their key moments replayed over and over again on cable news channels and those clips endlessly forwarded through social media (and by the campaigns themselves).

"It gets worse," Rath says. "You're getting into the part of the process where the primaries come in such rapid succession that you can't do the grass-roots things. It has to be all media and mail and social media."

Nationalized Campaigns

Even before the field spreads out — with 10 states set to vote on March 6 — the primary process has already been nationalized to a large extent.

It has long been the case that the winners of early contests could count on a great deal of momentum. But the dynamics haven't been so linear this time around. The Republican race has had a frequently used reset button.

A candidate such as Santorum, who had been a nonfactor in the early races outside of Iowa, can suddenly sweep a series of states, as he did last week in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado. Those contests — in which no delegates were awarded — have been enough to land him on top of the polls in Michigan.

After each primary, the national polls have followed that state's results, while the next state to vote appears to be bending the same way as national opinion.

Instead of hearing fresh messages from candidates campaigning in their states, the next round of voters has already received basically the same set of information, through media coverage.

"The idea that we have these separate and distinct state contests has been seriously undermined," says Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist who worked for former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. "The primaries have been much more nationalized."

The Fundamental Things Apply

None of this is to suggest that the old playbook has been totally abandoned. Romney, in particular, has engaged in all the traditional modes of campaigning — marching in parades, holding town hall meetings, making nice with local officials.

For all his stumbles, Romney has been able to regain the upper hand — at least temporarily — with victories in states such as New Hampshire and Florida. His ability to run ads and enlist supporters to get out the vote may be especially helpful as the campaign covers several states at once over the coming couple of months.

And he has already engaged in the same type of newfangled tactics as the so-called insurgent candidates, benefiting from superPAC ads attacking Gingrich in Iowa and Florida and regaining his own footing in the latter state through improved debate performances.

"Romney's superPAC was able to go into Iowa and spend a couple of million attacking Newt Gingrich," says Abramowitz, the Emory professor. "That's different from the type of campaigning we're used to seeing in Iowa, which had been a grass-roots, door-to-door campaign."

Brand New Ballgame

Romney may squelch Santorum using similar tactics. On the other hand, Santorum could conceivably convert a victory in Michigan into unstoppable momentum, carried to victory on the wings of media coverage, as opposed to anything resembling a traditional campaign structure and strategy.

All the support lent to Romney by traditional Republican power brokers hasn't been enough, as yet, to convince the majority of GOP primary voters that he's the one best suited to defeat President Obama in the fall.

Even if Santorum doesn't win the nomination, registering even a couple more primary victories would create a new playbook — one that isn't going to go away.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt
Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.