About That Santorum Surge

Let's cover it with some restraint and self-awareness

CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA — The media has been abuzz about Rick Santorum since Wednesday, when a CNN/Time/ORC International poll showed support among likely Iowa GOP caucus-goers for the long-lagging Santorum more than tripling since the start of December, and an NBC/Marist poll released Thursday showed similar numbers.

While these polls offered reporters a few interesting potential story lines—the Santorum surge (the CNN/Time poll put him at 16% support, or third place behind Mitt Romney and Ron Paul), a plunge in support for Newt Gingrich (to 14%, down from 33% at the start of the month), and Romney leading with 25% to Paul’s 22% (margin of error 3%)—it was the Santorum news that, to paraphrase Politico Wednesday, “won the day.”

The spoils: Seemingly more press attention since Wednesday than Santorum has received almost the entire campaign season. Take NBC News alone: Santorum was on the Today show on Thursday morning; NBC News’ First Read email that day asked, “Why not Santorum?”; and Santorum was booked for Meet the Press Sunday.

The Wall Street Journal and New York Times, among others, have reported that Santorum has started seeing larger crowds at his campaign events this past week, “reflecting,” in the Times’s words, Santorum’s rise in the polls.

Here’s the Boston Globe’s look at what that looked like:

Yesterday, standing before a packed room in Muscatine, Santorum noted he is no longer being largely ignored by the news media.

“People with all this machinery, I didn’t see them back then,’’ Santorum said, gesturing to seven television cameras around the function room overlooking the Mississippi River.

And, from the LA Times:

For Rick Santorum, it was the paparazzi moment that looked like it would never come. Cameras and correspondents awaited him Thursday at an event in eastern Iowa in numbers that had rarely, if ever, been seen by his campaign. Even the presidential candidate seemed a bit taken aback.

“Enjoying the circus?” one reporter asked.

“This is the first day,” Santorum replied.

Here in Cedar Rapids, I have yet to witness this “circus.” The atmosphere at a Santorum town hall event here on Wednesday night was less-than-enthusiastic. I had assumed there would be a crush of reporters, and probably people, too, given the day’s big news that Santorum was surging. In fact, there were only a handful of reporters and a staid crowd of 80-some Iowans. They were respectful and asked questions—a few of them nodded with the occasional, fervent ‘uh-huh’—but they lacked the hum, energy and size of crowds I’ve seen here at Gingrich, Romney, and Perry events.

The Des Moines Register’s William Petroski, who has been covering Santorum for much of the campaign, offered this insight from an event on Thursday:

Santorum spoke to about 60 people at a town hall meeting in the Coralville City Council chambers. About half of the crowd was Iowa and national news media who are covering his campaign, which has appeared to be gaining momentum heading into Tuesday’s Iowa Caucuses.

About half the crowd was media.

Something to keep in mind in the coming few days, and one of several caveats (in addition to, say, Santorum’s lack of money and organizational resources) for reporters contemplating Santorum’s surge and what it might yield in Iowa and beyond. Some self-awareness and restraint are in order. The atlantic.com’s Elspeth Reeves captured here some of the skepticism I’m feeling about the way this latest GOP candidate surge is being covered:

Is there time to squeeze in one more Not Mitt Romney candidate surge in the few days before the Iowa caucus? There’s definitely a surge of Rick Santorum surge stories: The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, USA Today, The Hill….

[A] Santorum boomlet would be fun for reporters, at least.

Momentum is a precious thing, particularly a few days before the caucus—it’s fine for the media to report it, but let’s keep some perspective.

Another thing to keep an eye on: this bit from the Times piece I referenced earlier:

[Santorum’s] recent rise in the polls seems to counter a major new theory in this primary contest — that support in Iowa can be won in televised debates and in cable news studios, without much retail campaigning.

But Mr. Santorum was unable to raise large amounts of money, like Mr. Perry, or command the attention of the national news media, like Mrs. Bachmann. Instead, he chose to campaign relentlessly on the stump, travelling from town to town, not in a campaign bus, but in a Dodge Ram pickup.

By his count, the event Wednesday night in Cedar Rapids was his 357th town hall meeting in Iowa this year. Thursday’s made 358.

At that 358th event, the news media was out in force to cover the campaign. He appeared on the “Today” show on NBC and practically had to fight his way through a crush of cameras as he was leaving the Coralville event.

Should Santorum “win” Iowa, whatever that means (third place?), what becomes of this “theory” (which we’ve written about) of a “national” campaign this cycle?

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.