After months of hard-slog campaigning in all 99 of Iowa's counties, Rick Santorum is finally reaping the benefits of hard work. But there may be more to come, because the particular nature of the Iowa race at the moment could mean much more support will soon come Santorum's way. Here's why:
For months, Iowa social conservatives have searched for a candidate behind whom they could unite in their drive to stop Mitt Romney. But they were never able to come together behind a single choice. They had high hopes for Rick Perry, but he disappointed them with poor debate performances. They had high hopes for Herman Cain, too, but his ill-prepared answers to serious policy questions troubled them. (And that was before any allegations of sexual improprieties on Cain's part.) They had doubts about Michele Bachmann's experience. Finally, they were drawn to Newt Gingrich, but many had a difficult time getting over the former speaker's three marriages.
There was one candidate that nearly all of them wanted to support, and that was Rick Santorum. But they had a problem with Santorum, too. That problem wasn't about knowledge, or experience, or personal history. No, the problem with Santorum was always electability. Many, many social conservatives said that they wanted to support Santorum but were troubled by his inability to rise above two or three percent support in the polls. If Santorum could just show that he could rise a bit higher, they said, then who knows how much support might come his way?
Now Santorum has done just that. A new CNN/Time poll has Santorum in third place in the Iowa race, with the support of 16 percent of those surveyed. That's up dramatically from the last CNN/Time poll, in early December, which showed Santorum in sixth place, with the support of five percent of respondents.
If Santorum's support really does stand at 16 percent -- and there are always questions about the accuracy of any one poll -- then there is a good chance Santorum will erase remaining doubts among Iowa social conservatives who are eager to support him but worried about electability. And if that happens, Santorum could rise quickly, taking support away from more problematic candidates. In the CNN/Time poll, Gingrich is at 14 percent, Perry 11 percent, and Bachmann nine percent. If those voters believe their own candidate is weakening and that Santorum is a viable alternative, they might well jump to Santorum. His current 16 percent support could increase considerably.
For weeks now, Iowa insiders have been predicting that the Republican race could break late and fast. With just five days left before the caucuses, Santorum could be well positioned to benefit from that late break. Certainly no one has worked harder campaigning in Iowa. Up until now, though, no one had less to show for it in terms of support in the polls. But that could be changing -- very quickly.
UPDATE: A number of commentators have observed that even if Santorum flies high in Iowa, he faces trouble ahead. That is true. In the RealClearPolitics average of polls in New Hampshire, Santorum is in sixth place, with 3.8 percent of voters. In the same average of polls in South Carolina, he is in seventh place, with 2.7 percent. So yes, a Santorum surge could be short-lived. But his answer would likely be: First things first; do well in Iowa and see what happens then.