GOP Caucus Roundup: From Glitter Bombs to Santorum's Surprise

Jaws dropped across the nation last night when Santorum swept Republican presidential caucuses in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado. While the votes were non-binding, the results are telling. So what exactly do they tell?
02/08/2012 07:12 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2012

Jaws dropped in front of computer screens across the nation late last night when, to the surprise of many, Rick Santorum swept Republican presidential caucuses in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado. While the votes were non-binding, the results are telling. So what exactly do they tell?

Coming into Colorado's caucus night, Gov. Mitt Romney was considered a shoe-in for leading the pack. In 2008, in a crowded primary field, he took over 50 percent of votes across the state. Last night, his support plummeted to just 35 percent, second to Santorum's claim to 40 percent of the 66,000 votes statewide. Interestingly, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul didn't present the threat feared, bringing in 12 and 11 percent, respectively.

In real numbers, Romney lost Colorado Tuesday by 3,600 votes. He failed to repeat 2008 victories in three key key counties, including El Paso (Santorum prevailed by 1,790 votes), Larimer (500 vote difference between the two), and Weld (700 vote difference). Together, these three counties constitute 80 percent of Romney's loss.

So what the heck happened?

Are Colorado's GOP voters becoming more socially conservative, and thus drawn to Santorum's religious, meat and potatoes messaging? Can the results be construed as a backlash against the Mormon Church's ongoing and omniponent public relations campaign?

Conversely, does Santorum's victory have less to do with messaging and more with style?

A quick scan of Facebook this morning suggests so. In response to high-profile political analyst Eric Sondermann's call for a public analysis, a Weld County woman concluded that the difference was all about the access each campaign granted to ordinary voters.

"Something smart Santorum's doing, is executing a 'hands on' - with people - as opposed to just throwing money at them," she said. "Folks I know don't care much for people who try to 'buy them.'"

Perhaps this is the GOP's own "Occupy Wall Street" moment. Historically, conservative voters in Colorado reject candidates they see as trying to buy an election. Take Bruce Benson's failed gubernatorial bid. He is an incredibly bright, self-made astute business leader, but money didn't land him victory. Similar high-dollar bids from Pete Coors for U.S. Senate and Bob Beauprez for governor came up short.

Over the last two presidential election cycles, Colorado voters have relished an unprecedented access to candidates that almost rivals what Iowa voters enjoy through their nationally-watched straw polls every four years. When Democrats hosted their 2008 national convention in Denver, voters got front row access, and the lucky ones got rock star seats at President Obama's sold out stadium acceptance speech. This year, voters and strategists alike once again assume that Colorado will provide a crucial stage for winning over previously neglected voters living between Chicago and L.A.

Voters have tasted the political bug and they want to be "touched" -- both figuratively and physically.

Another poster to Sondermann's Facebook page described how at a glitzy Monday night fundraiser, Santorum had captured his fancy. "We sat together, he looked at me when I was talking, and I felt like he wasn't telling me what he thought I wanted to hear, but what he genuinely believed."

Not every candidate can be the common man. Voters are skeptical about Romney's religion, his immense wealth, his good looks and the fact that he has never -- not once -- had a glass of wine too many. Ironically, Santorum's clean-as-a-whistle image is being embraced by voters. Social class definitely plays a role here.

Today, voters can sign into White House-hosted interactive town hall forums, surf an endless Internet for the latest rumors, quotes and photos, and ultimately gain a sense of connection to political contenders now subjected to a glare nearly as intense as any facing a paparazzi-chased Hollywood star.

Let's face it. We are a celebrity-obsessed culture. We feel important when that person we've studied from afar suddenly pays attention to us. Even if it's nothing more than a wave, a handshake, or a photo of the candidate holding our babies. We all love dropping names of various candidates we've "spoken to" at campaign rallies. It's all so seductive.

At Romney's post-caucus rally in Denver, one voter expressed bewilderment at not knowing what had changed between Romney's 2008 landslide and Santorum's 2012 underdog coup. It may be more simple than we think. While Santorum was chowing down with voters, Romney remained five feet away, limiting contact to shaking hands across a rope. The distance was barely enough to hinder a failed "glitter bomb" attack by one attendee. Secret Service agents immediately leapt into action, having the man removed.

Arguably, the security was reasonable, a response perhaps to credible threats of bodily harm. Legitimate or not, however, the Romney campaign faces a perceptible barrier on many levels -- both metaphorical and physical -- between the candidate and voters. Last night's vote was an acknowledgment and protest of that barrier.

Also frustrating Romney's efforts: rejection of two popular arguments repeated again and again by his supporters. We should vote for Romney, we were told, because he can beat Obama. We should vote for Romney because he doesn't turn off women like Gingrich does. Sorry guys, but in my house, that's not enough to earn our votes.

A cornerstone of the Republican Party, at least in theory, is the concept of free will -- free markets, school choice, etc. Despite Romney's embrace of these concepts, he's leading with a message that he's the inevitable candidate, and that just doesn't sit well with a party that's already feeling its impact stifled by the current administration.

Also key: while often misunderstood, Colorado's political environment is punctuated by a bi-partisan commitment to voters' western live-and-live ethos. To see Santorum's victory as an indicator of a more socially conservative GOP would be a mistake. He's accessible. His pitch isn't all about electability. And he's not Romney.

Santorum is the latest crush in the GOP's seemingly endless speed dating with alternatives to Romney. Remember Gingrich, Paul, Perry and other friends that once consumed media attention from atop the debate stage? Oh wait. That was last week.

My humble prediction: Romney has the resources and the moderate temperament necessary to win the nomination. It's premature to write off Santorum -- or even Gingrich. Republicans should abstain from talking about social issues altogether. If Romney makes it through the primary -- and I believe he has the best shot out of the current field -- he needs to reach out and touch voters. Even if it means he gets nailed with a few more glitter bombs along the way.

Jessica K. Peck, Esq. serves as the executive director of Colorado's Open Government Institute and as a principal with Henley Public Affairs.