To riff off the 1958 classic film “Gigi,” thank heaven for little states. Especially if they are among the first in the presidential nominating contests.
Iowa and New Hampshire are small enough for underdog candidates to still glad-hand voters, look them in the eye, and speak from the heart. And in Iowa’s GOP caucuses, contender Rick Santorum showed that the old-fashioned style of retail politics still has a big role to play in an age of impersonal cable TV debates, social media, and monied “super PAC” attack ads.
For more than a year, the former Pennsylvania senator slogged through Iowa’s 99 counties in a Dodge pickup truck, speaking at nearly 400 town halls. When Iowa’s ultraconservative voters finally settled on a candidate who wasn’t Mitt Romney, all of that shoe-leather stumping paid off. Mr. Santorum came within eight votes of beating the big-bucks, telegenic Mr. Romney.
Santorum’s near-victory may not carry him to the White House, or even past big-state primaries like Florida. Those large-market contests force candidates to rely on mass communication or, as Barack Obama proved in 2008, online micromarketing.
America’s democracy is in a long struggle between retail and wholesale politicking. The TV era began that struggle by pushing candidates to amass war chests of money to pay for expensive commercials. Cable TV shows and the Internet have since added to a style of campaigning that appeals to sound bites, slick advertising, and media-oriented debating skills.
Ideas and character can still be vetted in those digital forums. And indeed, the current GOP race has seen several candidates fade away after their flaws, flip-flops, flubs, and foibles were exposed.
But person-to-person contact still counts. Or at least it should if voters expect to have presidents who are trustworthy and empathetic. Those qualities shine best in kitchen chats, diner visits, town hall Q-and-As, and supermarket baby-kissing.
Not everyone who wins the White House is good at retail politics. The two Bushes and Mr. Obama certainly weren’t. Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were. Former Sen. Christopher Dodd moved his family to Iowa in 2007, even placing a child in school, in order to engage local voters. He failed.
Fortunately, the often-artificial nonretail methods can sometimes cancel out each other, creating room for retail politicians to rise. Newt Gingrich, for example, spiked in the polls after his TV debate performances but then he was knocked back by negative TV ads financed by a Romney-related super political-action committee (PAC).
In Iowa, super PACS and candidates spent some $16 million on TV ads. They certainly had an influence. Herman Cain shot up in popularity among Iowans based almost solely on his debate rhetoric. He barely visited the state.
Romney largely stayed away from Iowa until late in the game when he saw that he might win. Few voters got to kick his tires, which may have contributed to his slim win. Santorum, meanwhile, zigzagged across the state spending a pittance of the money that others spent.
“You can’t buy Iowa. You’ve got to go out and earn Iowa,” he often told crowds. “The pundits don’t come to these events, you do.”
The top winners in Iowa had strong followings because of their character, their particular stands on issues, or their winnability against Obama. But for the sake of the democratic process itself and for keeping politics local, Santorum was the victor.