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Santorum Winning SC 'Ground Game,' But Does It Matter?

In the area of multimillion-dollar air wars, do grip-and-grins and retail politics matter as much as they used to? If so, Rick Santorum would be surging.

While GOP presidential candidates can be counted on to wage a fierce air war in the South Carolina primary, many of the six remaining candidates in the race also seem to believe that waging good old-fashioned war on the ground here is still vital.

But is it?

If pounding the shoe leather and building a wide grassroots organization is the ticket to winning the state, then former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum should be surging.

But he's not.

Despite several dozen visits to the state (the most of any candidate by far) and a strong grassroots infrastructure in nearly all the state's 46 counties, Santorum is looking up at the frontrunner (former Gov. Mitt Romney) and dropping in the polls, according to a Public Policy poll released Friday. 

But retail politicking still has its champions here.

"You know, the air war is maybe a complement and a part of it, but the buzz is created in the churches and the ball fields and the basketball gyms," S.C. GOP chairman Chad Connelly recently told the website Talking Points Memo. "When you're with your friends and family, it's all about 'I met so-and-so,' or 'so-and-so came to my town.'"

While some still believe in it, others believe the traditional ground game is fast becoming a relic, and candidates ignore that at their peril.

"It means a lot less than it used to," said S.C. GOP political consultant and strategist Wesley Donehue, formerly the senior South Carolina adviser for Rep. Michele Bachmann's campaign.

If Santorum has a strong ground game that is failing so far to overtake Romney, the same might be said for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, both with impressive state organizations and grassroots support. 

In the most recent polls, early state frontrunner Perry has gained ground after a precipitous fall, as he continues to maintain a relentless schedule of meet-and-greets and town halls across the state. Still, he remains in single-digits. 

Gingrich, who led state polls by a significant margin over Romney just a month ago, is now fighting for second-place, crisscrossing the state looking to regain support and get within striking range of Romney.

Gingrich has a paid staff of at least a dozen people in South Carolina, dozens of county-level captains across the state, several key Tea Party endorsements, and a fairly robust, grassroots-driven social media campaign. 

And Perry, many in the state believe, has not only the state's biggest staff, but the most capable as well, said Donehue.

Bob Oldendick, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina and executive director of the school's Institute for Public Service and Policy Research, doesn't entirely disagree with Donehue that old-school politicking is growing whiskers. 

But for smaller, early primary states such as South Carolina, a good ground game is and will continue to be vital, he argued.

"In this state, trying to do a campaign without a significant and pretty strong ground game, it's going to hurt you," Oldendick said.

Frontrunner Romney, however, has spent little time in South Carolina and has relatively little micro-level infrastructure in place compared to many of his rivals. 

After winning New Hampshire, Romney was the first to hit South Carolina, but after making a few stops in South Carolina over a couple of days the former Massachusetts executive was quickly off to Florida, where many analysts believe he can secure his path to the nomination once and for all.

Rep. Ron Paul has spent even less time in South Carolina than Romney, though the most recent polls indicate that he is surging, moving into third place, largely on the strength of a fervent base of young, self-motivated and self-directed supporters. 

Romney has plenty of game, it's just not boots on the ground.

Instead, the candidate has been relying largely on , the support of big-time business leaders in the state, a huge campaign war chest, national wall-to-wall news coverage, social media, and his momentum coming out of Iowa and New Hampshire.

While Romney may lead in polls here, some people warn that his victory here is not a fait accompli — not yet. Retail politics, Donehue said, can still help a candidate should he suddenly get hot and get within striking distance before the Jan. 21 primary. 

And even if a candidate can't bridge the divide between themselves and Romney before and actually manage to win, it may at least mean he survives to challenge Romney again in Florida on Jan. 31.  

"The strategy for most of the candidates seems to be, 'Let's just get out there and meet as many people as we can,'" said Oldendick.

Grassroots has become 'netroots'

Oldendick believes that while ground game is important here, it becomes less so after Iowa and New Hampshire, where retail face-to-face, door-to-door campaigning has become a sacrosanct tradition. 

Compared to South Carolina, it's much easier to build ground game in Iowa and New Hampshire. First of all, since they come first and can help propel the eventual nominee, candidates will spend months, sometimes even years, in those states. 

And further, said Oldendick, South Carolina has a greater population than Iowa and dwarfs New Hampshire in not only population but in geographic size, making a S.C. ground game that much more difficult to pull off logistically.

And after South Carolina, a good ground game becomes even more daunting, especially in large, populous states such as Florida, where media exposure and big money become ever more important.

"The walls between states are crumbling and things are being driven more by a national messaging strategy," said Donehue. "Therefore, what the 24-hour TV news networks are saying, and TV strategies, is what's really driving everything right now."

"I think ground game comes into play at a very close rate, such as a percent or two [in the polls]," he added. "I also think ground game is important in states like Iowa, but in South Carolina it's much more a TV game."

And it's increasingly becoming an online game as well, Donehue said.

"Grassroots is becoming netroots," he said. "Used to you'd go knock on a hundred doors and it would take you hours. Now, instead of spending hours telling 100 people, you can spend five seconds telling thousands."

And Romney is winning the digital battle, Donehue said.

"I think Mitt Romney is killing it on social media right now," he said. "He's got the best and most creative advertising budget. They've been recruiting online activists around the country to help them. Mitt Romney and his Internet team has blown it out of the water."

Paul, who boasts legions of young, avid, tech-savvy supporters, has an impressive online presence, and has had it for years, Donehue added. But that presence to a large extent has grown organically and independent of the candidate's organization.

"And it's that way offline, too. What makes him different is that his [support] is organic and not necessarily organized," he said. "Ron Paul has done a good job of giving kids and supporters a forum for delivering his message for him. He's really fostered that kind of fluid organization."

Kickin' it old-school

Despite Donehue's assertion that the ground game as we know it is going out of style, candidates in South Carolina are still counting on good old-fashioned retail politicking leading up to the Jan. 21 primary.

Perry placed his focus on South Carolina before the start of the New Hampshire primary, a wise decision according to his supporters. 

"It wasn't a surprise to anybody what happened in New Hampshire or Iowa," said former U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Wilkins, who endorsed Perry just seven days after he announced his run for president in Charleston.

"But historically South Carolina never pays any attention to what happens in New Hampshire or Iowa. South Carolina is the first southern state and it's the first real Republican state." 

Perry returned to South Carolina on Sunday and began a busy schedule of stops across the state this week. 

"He’s working very hard and he’s going all over the state right now," Wilkins said. 

Perry's S.C. Campaign Director Katon Dawson told Patch recently that the campaign is focusing heavily on South Carolina and feels confident that Perry will regain his footing in the state. 

"We’ve got a message to tell them about creating jobs, Dawson said during a visit to Pickens on Monday. 

Dawson said Perry is the candidate "who understands South Carolina values and who would represent us well and put a bold contrast to Barack Obama from Illinois." 

"And that’s what we need as Republicans, a bold contrast so Americans can take that choice on what direction they want to go in and where they want to take it and Rick Perry is the guy to take us," Dawson said. 

Perry has seen a significant turn in his status since he first announced his candidacy.

Once a frontrunner, Perry was at the top of the national polls and is now near the bottom. His campaign has taken a different approach since arriving in South Carolina, focusing on values and the need for an 'outsider' in the White House. 

Dawson said he feels the campaign made the right choice in returning to South Carolina while other candidates spent their time in New Hampshire.

Perry probably has the best ground game in the state, said Donehue. He certainly has the biggest and most well-trained field staff in the state. "His staff has done an amazing job" building the candidate's state infrastructure, he said.

"But your field staff really needs to be in a position to catch momentum and be able to turn out votes," Donehue said, adding Perry has very little momentum to grab hold of. "And when there is no momentum to catch, your ground game pretty much becomes irrelevant.

"Unfortunately, Rick Perry hasn't ever been able to catch fire," Donehue added. "His staff has been amazing building an organization, but it's all been for nothing."

And a good ground game likely will do absolutely no good either for former Gov. Jon Huntsman, who is expected to announce on Monday that he will drop out of the race.

He can press the flesh all he wants, but in Donehue's estimation, Huntsman is toast.

"Jon Huntsman allowed himself to be labeled the moderate and a Barack Obama ally before he was ever able to label himself," he said. "That's a problem a lot of candidates face. You have to label yourself before others can label you. And he never overcame it."

Huntsman boasts S.C. political guru Richard Quinn on his team and endorsements from the likes of former state Attorney General Henry McMaster and the family of late Gov. Carroll Campbell.

Meanwhile Paul has risen from the bottom of the polls to take a firm position in the front of the pack. Supporters in South Carolina are confident of a strong turnout for the Texas congressman here.

Paul’s S.C. Campaign Chairman Mike Vasovski said everyone involved in the campaign has been extremely active. Vasovski would not share specifics on any campaign strategies but said things are picking up in the run up to the primary. 

"We now know the things that make a difference and we’re pursuing those things," Vasovski said, cryptically.  

Vasovski said the campaign is heavily focused on the populated areas of the state such as Greenville, Columbia, Charleston, and Myrtle Beach.  

Robbie Bowen, a volunteer for the Paul campaign in Spartanburg, said he’s been busy organizing rallies, phone-banking events, and sign-waving events.

Although Paul has spent the least amount of time of any of the candidates in South Carolina he has a strong volunteer base that maintains a constant presence on his behalf. 

"I’ll make calls after I get home from work at night," Bowen said. Bowen, like many of Paul’s supporters in South Carolina is a volunteer.

He works 40 hours as an inside sales representative for a local manufacturer. Campaigning for Paul is what he does in his spare time. 

"I called about 150 voters last night and I couldn’t believe how many people are considering voting for Ron Paul," Bowen said. 

Bowen said there’s a lot more going on for the Paul campaign behind the scenes, where his volunteer base is hard at work. 

"I know there have been a lot more people putting up homemade signs, they’re just everywhere, it’s amazing," Bowen said.

Meanwhile, the Santorum campaign this week announced it has opened six offices across the state and has volunteers organized in 42 of 46 counties.

"We're relying on the ground game, we're relying on the grass roots, we're relying on our sweat equity," Gresham Barrett, a former congressman who is serving as Santorum's campaign chairman in South Carolina, told Huffington Post this week.

"And I think so far, it's been pretty effective."

After forgoing advertising in New Hampshire, the Santorum campaign plans to spend at least $1.5 million getting his name out in the state, said Santorum's national communications director J. Hogan Gidley.

"We saved all of our money (for South Carolina)," Gidley told Reuters. "We have money to last."

Rob rRoberts January 16, 2012 at 07:09 PM
Santorum' ground game will fail because of his messy internet game. See for yourself, just google "santorum".
Nathanael Greene January 17, 2012 at 06:39 PM
I agree. You might want to take a look at some additional search engines, though. Take this from the messy internet game book this election, too. Sometimes it's just sad how far they'll go to get your vote... http://www.webpronews.com/ron-paul-racist-google-news-2012-01

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