Last night's three state Santorum sweep was a shocker to say the least. While his wins in Minnesota and Missouri were somewhat expected based on prior published polling, Santorum's out-of-nowhere victory in Colorado stunned pundits and politicos across the board.
We had been predicting for a few days that Santorum would have a strong finish at the caucuses, stronger than many in the chattering class had accounted for in their analysis. Yet even we didn't see the win coming.
He worked the state harder than anyone, positioned himself as the true Romney alternative and rode a last minute wave of momentum into a momentous victory.
Here are 7 takeaways we took from last night's Santorum shocker.
1. Colorado conservatives' independence: Just as Colorado conservatives sent a clear message to John McCain in 2008 that they weren't willing to sign on to his inevitable candidacy, overwhelmingly voting for Romney, in 2012 they reminded the country of their rugged Western independence, giving the race to 2012's version of 2008 Romney, Rick Santorum. Romney did not work the state hard enough giving voters a reason to support him, but rather was trying to ride the wave of inevitability. That doesn't fly here.
2. Endorsements matter, just not from politicians: While Romney had all of the statewide elected officials, 16 state legislators and the full stable of former elected officials like Hank Brown and Bill Owens, Santorum had the folks that conservatives really care about. In 2012, Michelle Malkin's endorsement matters far more to conservatives than Mark Waller's or Larry Liston's. Malkin, who has twice as many Twitter followers as Santorum's Presidential campaign, and has been ranked the most influential blogger in politics, was an enormously powerful force in branding Santorum as the leading anti-Romney. In the future, we suggest candidates spend less time seeking John Suthers' endorsement and more trying to convince those that the grassroots listens to.
3. Newt Gingrich is dead in the water: Just as we predicted the day of the caucus, perhaps the most significant long-term impact of last night's results is that Gingrich has lost the mantle of the conservative alternative to Romney. He wasn't on the ballot in Missouri, finished a distant fourth in Minnesota and was a complete non-factor in Colorado's race. With $600,000 in debt, his campaign will watch in agony as Santorum sucks up millions in grassroots fundraising over the next couple of weeks that they direly need to run ads in the expensive media markets of Super Tuesday. Santorum now has the Mo', the money and the mantle. And Gingrich won't even have a debate to shine in for another two weeks.
4. PPP sucks at polling Colorado: Democrat polling firm, Public Policy Polling (PPP), has an atrocious track record in Colorado. Last fall they polled the state but oversampled Democrats by 8-points, rendering their results meaningless. The night before Colorado Republicans went to their precinct cacucus, PPP released a Colorado poll with Romney at 37, Santorum 27, Gingrich 21, and Paul at 13. The real results? Santorum 40, Romney 35, Gingrich 13, Paul 12. PPP got it embarrassingly wrong. Note this for when they show polls with Obama leading in Colorado in the next couple of months.
5. Ron Paul's supporters aren't voting Republicans. As AP reporter Kristen Wyatt noted on Twitter, Ron Paul's rallies had more people than he got votes last night. As we've seen in other states that have elections closed to only registered Republicans, Ron Paul vastly underperformed expectations. That seems to be because his support comes from a young demographic that doesn't tend to be registered as Republican. While he surpassed his showing of 8.4% in 2008, he still came in a distant fourth place. As voters had to be registered as Republicans since December, they had to prepare months in advance, something not conducive to the younger demographic. In Iowa, voters could change their registration the day of the caucus, which likely boosted Paul's finish there significantly. In Colorado, he had no such luck.
6. Romney can't mail it in anywhere. With no TV ads, little direct mail, and only a modest ground effort, Romney thought he could win with a light Colorado foot print and he was so very wrong. Some pundits have said that he can only win with negative TV blitzes, forgetting that Presidential elections are almost entirely defined by negative ads on TV. Even the supposed positive campaign of Obama ran more negative ads than any Presidential campaign in history. Santorum is certainly going to see his fair share of attack ads in the coming weeks, but Romney will need to not forget the lesson he keeps learning, which is that he can't take anything for granted.
7. This race still has some juice left in it. While Romney was hoping February would be a coronation, it instead is shaping up to be a hard fought slog. Romney is still the nearly prohibitive favorite to be the nominee, but last night put a serious chink in his armor of inevitability. He has not closed the deal with the base by a long shot. Conservatives have not been convinced that he can champion their cause in his campaign. After his gaffe on the 'very poor,' even establishment Republicans began to doubt his image as the more professional disciplined candidate to take on Barack Obama. Between needing to prove his conservative bona fides and demonstrate his superiority as a candidate through message discipline and campaign organization, Romney has some serious challenges ahead of him before he can claim the nomination.