Rick Santorum, Iowa's Dark Horse candidate, gaining ground

Rick Santorum is finally rising in the polls in Iowa. And Santorum gained a key evangelical Christian leader's endorsement Tuesday.

By , DCDecoder

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    Republican presidential candidate, former Penn. Sen. Rick Santorum, speaks in Osceola, Iowa, Dec. 19, 2011.
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The headline out of the latest Rassmussen poll surveying Republican voters in Iowa is all about Newt Gingrich’s continuing slide. The poll shows Gingrich now in third place, with 17 percent, behind Mitt Romney (25 percent) and Ron Paul (20 percent).

But just as interesting to Decoder is the fact that the poll also shows former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum now in fourth place, with 10 percent (tied with the other Rick, Perry). That’s the best result for Santorum so far this cycle. In fact, it’s the first significant movement he’s had in any poll at all - and, needless to say, it’s coming at an opportune time.

Tuesday, Santorum got the coveted personal endorsement of Bob Vander Plaats, a prominent evangelical leader in Iowa. And a Super PAC supporting Santorum just dropped $350,000 to run TV ads on his behalf in Iowa. That’s far less than the millions Perry has spent, but it puts Santorum well ahead of Gingrich and Michele Bachmann in terms of airtime.

Recommended: Election 101: Rick Santorum makes a bid for the White House

Santorum has been like the Little Engine that Could in Iowa - among all the candidates, he alone has visited all 99 counties, racking up far more time in the Hawkeye State than any of his rivals. Yet for months, his poll numbers remained stubbornly mired in the low single digits. Now it appears some of his hard work may finally be paying off. 

His biggest challenge may be trying to unite a clearly divided evangelical community. With Bachmann, Perry, and, to some extent, even Gingrich all making appeals to social conservatives, Christian leaders in Iowa are expressing concern about their vote being diluted. Tellingly, Vander Plaats’s endorsement came amid rumors that he had made a personal appeal to Bachmann to drop out of the race. And while Vander Plaats denied making such a request, he told Politico:

“…what’s happening here is that the conservative support is being divided, where last year, or four years ago, we all could coalesce around Mike Huckabee. This time there’s a lot of divided support and we’re quite frankly afraid we’re going to get what the Iowa caucus voters don’t want — and that’s Mitt Romney winning the Iowa caucuses.”

 Decoder would only add that while poll numbers do show the evangelical vote is indeed splintered, they don’t necessarily point to a scenario where Romney wins entirely by default. Christian conservative leaders may not be big fans of the former Massachusetts governor, but rank and file evangelical voters appear far more sanguine about him. According to the Rassmussen poll, 19 percent of evangelicals in Iowa are now backing Santorum, the most of any candidate. But the candidate with the next highest level of support (18 percent) is none other than … Willard “Mitt” Romney.

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