How Rick Santorum Pulled off the Iowa Caucus Upset

7 Jan

                The fall harvest in Iowa is long over, but GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum managed to winnow a few extra bushels—of votes.   The caucus night celebrations and day-after headlines that trumpted Mitt Romney as the victor have been nullified by a certification count that  awards Santorum the winner by a mere 34 votes.   The history books will record Mitt Romney as the loser of the Iowa Caucuses and cast Ron Paul as the candidate who finally gained legitimacy.  But, Santorum’s last minute surge will likely be studied by campaigns and political scientists for years to come.

GOP Presidential Candidate Rick Santorum

                From a marketing communications point of view, Santorum’s first place finish is a lesson in the importance positioning strategy, tactics and luck.  Santorum and his campaign successfully positioned himself as the social conservative who was consistently on message and disciplined enough to avoid mistakes.   In the words of my grandfather, a lifelong dairy farmer, Santorum avoided stepping in too many “sugar daddies.”  If you look at a perceptual strategy map of the major GOP candidates, Santorum carved out and maintained a unique position. (Figure 1)  He occupied the space on the map necessary for a candidate to succeed among Iowa’s GOP activists: consistently conservative and gaffe free.

Figure 1 - GOP Perceptual Map of Iowa Caucus Candidates

              It’s no accident that Romney, Santorum and Paul all finished in a near dead heat and everyone else as “also ran’s.”   That’s where a little bit of luck played a significant factor.  Michele Bachmann may have staked her claim as the most conservative candidate and an effective debater, but her perceived missteps on vaccines and other issues gravely affected her position on the perceptual map in the minds of voters.  Texas Governor Rick Perry, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich didn’t fare any better.

             Santorum’s finish is also remarkable given the fact that he had little to no brand awareness in Iowa.   His surge in the weeks leading up to the caucuses came as a result of what marketers call an effective execution of product news and product experience.  In other words, his campaign staff and volunteers were able to effectively reach party activists with a message of how he was different and relevant.   Furthermore, his personal appearances gave potential voters a chance to experience the candidate and size up his message against their own values. 

Figure 2 - Google Trends Data Leading up to Iowa Caucases

             In my most recent post, I noted how Ron Paul was far and away leading the pack in buzz.   This too is another essential marketing driver.  The metrics in Iowa as measured by Google Trends showed Santorum gaining more web searches in the days leading up to the caucuses. (Figure 2)  It’s an important metric because it shows that people are yearning to discover more about the candidate.  In the end, Santorum was perhaps able to convert or activate more of that buzz into votes than was Paul. 

             The challenge now for Santorum and his campaign is trying to compete in two new markets.  New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida are a long ways from the corn fields of Iowa.  Their voters have a different conservative value proposition will have their own perceptual map of where the candidates align.   In New Hampshire, every indication is that Mitt Romney has strong brand awareness and emotional bonds with GOP activists.  Those are powerful drivers for any challenger to overcome.  But Santorum clearly now has a degree of buzz.  What his campaign does with it and how it responds to the new scrutiny that will come could very well determine how long it takes for republicans to settle on a presidential nominee.

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