The Great Santorum Surge
1.) Santorum made a point of visiting every county in Iowa. Let me repeat that. He visited every county in Iowa. That's something none of his competitors did. And while his advertising budget in Iowas was dwarfed by every other candidate save Michelle Bachman, there's a lot of evidence to show that immense ad spending has done little to move the race, save perhaps for damaging Romney. Indeed, Santorum's Iowa success is due in large part to old-fashioned campaign politics. Except no substitutions. By and large, people will think better of you if they see you up close. (Unless you make an ass of yourself. Ahem.)
2.) Santorum stayed on message. Now, I pretty much despise the actual message, but the fact is, he stayed on it. There were no equivocations, no flip-flopping. And if you're on the far right of the social conservative side of the political spectrum, and you're already distrustful of Romney and Gingrich, then that's going to mean something to you. And, unlike Bachman and Rick Perry, he didn't really ever come off as either stupid or crazy while doing it. Repugnant, maybe, but not crazy or stupid. And if you've already bought into that particular philosophy, then you've really only got those three horses in the race. If you're a social conservative, and you have no issues with the beliefs Santorum espouses, why not go for the one that looks the least stupid or crazy?
3.) Santorum got kind of lucky. OK, you can't plan for that sort of thing, but it's true. The narrative of this whole primary season has been the far-right's search for a candidate who was not Romney. One by one, contenders made dashes for that title, and one by one they crashed and burned: Tim Pawlenty, Donald Trump, Bachman, Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich ... each of them got taken out for a spin, and each of them crashed and burned, and whomever they've blamed along the way, most of them engineered their own undoings. Ron Paul's slipping a bit in polls, now, but his actual crash hasn't come. Only real political wonks have held Santorum up for any sort of scrutiny, and that's been a boost. Right now Paul's been getting the media attention he'd been previously lacking, and you can already see him start to whither. Can Santorum fare any better than the others when the heat's turned on? I'm inclined to doubt.
Now ... the bad news for Santorum: All that time he spent in Iowa is time he didn't spend elsewhere, and New Hampshire's almost certainly Romney Country, which effectively makes this a three-person race -- Santorum, Romney and Paul -- all the way to South Carolina and Florida, and I have to say, that's a pretty good illustration of the actual philosophical divide that makes up the current GOP. Santorum's had little face time outside Iowa (neither has Paul), and nowhere near Romney's money to spend. Now if, say, Bachman or Perry officially bow out and throw some support at Santorum, things might change, but right now we're looking at a deck that's stacked in Romney's favor.
The real question is whether the mounting tensions between the GOP's coalition of the religious right (Santorum) and right-wing libertarians (Paul) can outweigh more pragmatism-minded moderate-conservatives in a lot of states. The old saw is that "Democrats fall in love, republicans fall in line," and there's some truth to that -- just look at the last congressional election -- but the tensions between GOP factions are running high right now, and I can't help but wonder if bitterness in this primary might translate to a lack of Republican enthusiasm in November. The biggest political strength that the Democrats have is that they, for whatever reason, tend to fair well with a prolonged, hard-fought primary, whereas the process tends to weaken Republican candidates more. They're far more effective politically when they're all on the same page, and clearly, right now they're not.