Can We Write Off the Candidates Who Are Actually Campaigning?

SPARTANBURG, SC - NOVEMBER 12: Republican presidential candidate and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) speaks to members of the media after a presidential debate at Wofford College November 12, 2011 in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The debate was focused on national security and foreign policy. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Maggie Haberman asks a question I had a couple of weeks ago, though she gets better answers. So… how come Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich are able to do well without putting in the same effort that, say, Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman are putting into Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively?

On Sunday, the morning after the Family Leader event that drew six candidates to Iowa, five of them were already in transit or gone from the state by the time churches — typically places where hopefuls appeal to the evangelical base — started holding Sunday services.

The candidate who worked Iowa the hardest in the early stages, and with the best organization — Tim Pawlenty — dropped out after his fundraising sank following a missed opportunity to thump Romney at an early debate. Santorum’s 99-county tour of Iowa hasn’t moved the dial for him yet. And Huntsman, who this week announced his 100th event in the Granite State, hasn’t inched beyond his high of 10 percent in the polls there.

There are two separate questions here, and we only know the answers to one of them.

1) Why are two guys who don’t campaign quite as much as the others doing so well in polls? Because of the new power of earned media, I’d say.

2) Why can’t the other candidates overcome this? Hey! We don’t know that yet!

Look at polls from this point in 2007. At this point, Mitt Romney was just starting to lose his lead in Iowa to Mike Huckabee. In New Hampshire, which was a far more open race, Mitt Romney led John McCain by better than 15 points, and Rudy Giuliani was in a strong third, fighting for the lead. Hey, go back eight years – at this time in the cycle, Howard Dean was solidly leading in Iowa, Dick Gephardt was in second, and all of that John Edwards/John Kerry legwork was producing single digit poll numbers. The grassroots candidates surged late, capitalizing on their hard-won in-person recognition with a burst of TV ads and mail. And “late” is when you want to surge. When we see stories proclaiming Newt Gingrich “the comeback kid,” who forget that no one has actually voted for Gingrich yet – it’s like praising someone for his new gig when he made it through the first of five job interviews.

All of which is to say: I’m not going to same the mistake I did with Gingrich. I’m ready for the Santorum surge. To under-estimate the evangelical voter’s disdain for a Mormon/mandate candidate is to commit pundit malpractice.