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Santorum: 'I don't think anybody understood how little money we had'

Gene J. Puskar / AP

Surrounded by members of his family, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum announces he is suspending his candidacy for the presidency effective today, Tuesday, April 10, 2012, in Gettysburg, Pa.

 

It was September when Elizabeth Santorum began making cold calls for her dad.
 
The eldest child of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was not dialing potential voters or donors; Elizabeth Santorum, then 20-years-old, was trying to figure out how to get her father on the ballot in the contests following Iowa’s Jan. 3 caucus.
 
"I would call from my cell phone and my house phone, just call the secretary of state's office or the party's office and say, 'Hi, this is Elizabeth with Sen. Santorum's campaign, and I was wondering if you had your guidelines for getting on your ballot there," she remembers.
 
Her inquiry was often met with the same response: "Ballot guidelines for president? Of the United States?"
 
Rick Santorum ran a campaign drastically different than his Republican rivals.  He had to.  His campaign brought in a meager $6,000-7,000 a day before his surprise win in Iowa.  It meant that vital tasks like getting on state ballots were left to his daughter and a handful of staff with no experience running a presidential campaign.  His cash-strapped candidacy was made up of countless instances where the former Pennsylvania senator needed to find innovative ways to save a buck.
 
Santorum often joked that he ran his campaign on a shoestring "would be an insult to shoe strings."  Still, despite the tremendous disadvantages, he was somehow able to mount the most serious threat to the presumptive Republican nominee -- and did it with only a fraction of the resources.   In 2011, the campaign brought in just over $2 million, the least amount of any GOP candidate.
 
"I don't think anybody understood how little money we had," said campaign manager Mike Biundo.
 
It meant Santorum was cheap.  He had to be.  Staffers would grin and bear it when they found themselves sharing rooms at inexpensive hotels.  The candidate only had one standard that all lodging needed to meet: wherever they stayed, it had to provide a free breakfast.
 
There was no campaign headquarters until the late stages of his candidacy.  The Verona, PA address on mailers and press releases was nothing more than a PO Box in the Keystone State.  When they finally rented a space in northern Virginia, the few staffers who migrated there stayed with friends to save the cost of paying for a hotel.
 
When Biundo was promoted from national political director to campaign manager in October 2011, he served in dual capacities until his old job was finally filled on January 23, 2012.  The campaign didn't hire a delegate strategist until after the February 28 Michigan primary.
 
When an intern helping the campaign in Ohio revealed he was from Idaho and had a family involved in state politics there, he was put on a plane and sent west with the new title of "Idaho State Director."

MSNBC's Thomas Roberts talks to Hogan Gidley, the National Communications Director for Rick Santorum, about the impending meeting between Santorum and Mitt Romney, and the assurances Santorum is hoping to get during that meeting.

 
Perhaps more so than any other candidate, Santorum ran nearly every aspect of his campaign.  He kept a watchful eye over finances and used the little money he had to build a candidacy perfectly fit for the grassroots-style politics of Iowa.  But after winning the first-in-the-nation caucus, the difficulties associated with running for president without money or much of an organization became apparent. He wasn't able to get on the ballot in Virginia, couldn't go on air with ads in some of the states he hoped to compete in and his three-person press shop found themselves drowned each day by negative ads and opposition research from Mitt Romney's team.
 
Even with all the disadvantages and disorganization of his campaign, the former Pennsylvania senator who lost his home state by 18 points in his 2006 re-election bid was able to solidify himself as the sole Romney alternative and has now established himself as a leading conservative voice in the Republican Party.
 
*****
 
When Mike Biundo climbed into the rented RV, he knew there was a chance the 23-hour drive would be even less comfortable on the way back then it would be on the way there. It was August, and, not having the money to fly, Biundo packed the camper full of staffers and volunteers to drive to Ames, IA for the straw poll.
 
Biundo remembers it as one of the most difficult times during his boss's run.  At $30 a pop, they feared they had promised to give out more free tickets to the straw poll than they could afford.  While their GOP competitors were advertising free concerts and all-you-can-eat barbecue, Santorum staffers were scaling back everywhere they could to save a dime.  They tried to entice voters with "Presidential Peach Preserve" from peaches picked from the Santorum's home.
 
Senior advisers knew that anything worse than a fourth-place finish on August 13 would likely mean an end to the short-lived candidacy. While the underdog candidate narrowly defeated Herman Cain to take fourth and keep his campaign afloat, his financial troubles never went away.
 
Citing momentum coming off their straw poll finish, Santorum moved his Iowa headquarters.  The only catch was that their new space was actually smaller than the office from which they had moved.  Under the direction of Iowa State Director Cody Brown, the campaign began plugging away in the Hawkeye State.  Brown had only one field staffer until July, and added just a handful throughout the entire campaign.

"One of our competitive advantages was our candidate's time," said Brown.  It was an advantage that can in part be attributed to having few fundraisers.  In the fall, candidates would leave the state to collect checks from big donors -- a time management issue Santorum did not have to deal with.  So, instead of flying out Texas to collect checks, he drove to places like Sioux City, IA to hold town halls where he would talk and take questions for more than an hour.
 
"We had heavy competition in these metro areas because that's where all the candidates were spending their time because that's where the votes are," Brown said.  "So what we did is, we looked at the map, and said, 'Where can we go and pick some fruit that no other candidate's going to be able to pick?'  And so that's when we went out to those rural counties.  That's why we did the 99-county tour."
 
On Nov. 2, more than two months before the Iowa caucus, Santorum had completed the tour and visited all of Iowa's 99 counties.  No other candidates were close to completing the milestone at that time. Twenty caucusgoers showed up to the event Maquoketa, IA, along with NBC News embed Alex Moe, a still photographer and a local print reporter.
 
“[Iowa] Gov.Terry Branstad said if you really want to win Iowa, you gotta get out and go to all 99 counties and meet people,” Santorum said. “He's had a pretty good track record of winning here in Iowa so we're trying to follow his advice and I think it will pay off in the end.”
 
At that time, Santorum sat at just 5 percent in the Des Moines Register poll, behind every candidate except former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.  There was no such thing as a "99 county bump."
 
*****
 
That's what made it a gutsy decision in early December, when Santorum decided to spend money on filing fees to get on the ballot in upcoming primary states. It would mean he could not make the final advertising push in Iowa like nearly everyone else.

Top Talkers: Newt Gingrich suspends his bid for the White House, but he stops short of endorsing Mitt Romney. Will he and Rick Santorum get behind the presumptive nominee before all is said and done? The Morning Joe panel – including Mike Barnicle and former DLC chairman Harold Ford Jr. – discusses.

It was in the final month of 2012 when Biundo asked Elizabeth Santorum and senior aide Greg Rothman to get on ballots everywhere they could scrap together the signatures and the money.  It was late in the game, and they missed important deadlines, most notably in Virginia, a state where campaign advisers felt they could do well in but ultimately did not make it onto the ballot.
 
"Sitting at 5 percent, we decided not to spend money in Iowa, but to spend money to help us get on ballots across this country. Now you want to talk about hubris, and confidence, people were saying we should get out of the race and we were spending money to get on ballots in March and April instead of trying to survive in Iowa," Santorum said in March when asked why his campaign was unable to file the necessary paper work to be eligible for all of the delegates in Illinois.
 
It was true. For a campaign still running on fumes and sitting at the bottom of the polls, they had enough faith in themselves to look ahead.  And Santorum was not the only one that had electoral issues. Neither Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry nor Jon Huntsman were able to get their names on the Virginia ballot.  But in important primary states like Illinois and Ohio, Santorum's disorganization meant he was not eligible to win all the state's delegates.
 
Santorum's ballot problems could easily have been a non-issue if something didn't happen in Iowa.
 
There was no one moment that things started to shift in the campaign's favor. (That said, many on Santorum’s staff point to the Mike Huckabee's pro-life forum in Des Moines on Dec. 14, when the candidate took the stage wearing a sweater vest as a turning point.  He drew attention and acclaim for his speech that night, and the motto "Fear Rick's Vest" was born.)
 
But Santorum's momentum did not seem to have a single origin.
 
"People who hadn't decided were overwhelmingly deciding in favor of us.  This was the up-and-coming thing, and it came out of nowhere," Elizabeth Santorum said.  "And it wasn't media-created; it wasn't an event or a particular moment that had caused the speculation and interest.  It was just Iowans started deciding."
 
The GOP hopeful took a few days off the trail to be with his family for Christmas.  It was the real first break he had taken in months, and when he returned to the Hawkeye State to go pheasant hunting with Iowa Congressman Steve King, things were different -- in a good way.
 
For the first time in his candidacy, polls showed Santorum on the rise.  Earlier in the month, tea party favorite Herman Cain had exited the race, and caucusegoers showing up at Santorum rallies would frequently say they were giving the former senator a second look after the pizza magnate dropped out.
 
"I felt that, from the standpoint of my family, we were being protected from the spotlight, from the scrutiny, until it really mattered, which was caucus time," said Elizabeth Santorum, who was by her father's side through much of the campaign as her mother cared for their 3-year-old special needs daughter.
 
Jan. 3, 2012, when Iowans finally went to caucus, was the highlight of the campaign for the Santorums and their team.
 
Brown, who was tracking results in a room with a representative from each campaign and members of the Iowa Republican Party, remembers a Romney staffer congratulating him when it looked like Santorum would win.  However, Romney would be declared the initial winner of the Iowa caucus, a blunder that would take nearly 3 weeks to correct and that Santorum advisers feel cost them upwards of $1 million in fundraising.
 
Still, it marked the first time in the campaign that Santorum’s largely ignored candidacy was the headline.
 
*****
 
It was two days later when Santorum got booed off the stage in Concord, NH.
 
Speaking at the 2012 "College Convention," he engaged in a debate -- not with his rival candidates, but with college students.  They pushed him on his views on gay marriage, and he pushed back.
 
Speaking to a crowd of 200 mostly young people, Santorum compared gay marriage to polygamy when crowd members pressed him on his steadfast defense of traditional marriage.  "How about the idea that all men are created [with] equal rights to happiness and liberty?" a woman in the audience asked him.
 
"So anyone can marry can marry anybody else, so, if that’s the case, then everyone can marry several people," Santorum responded.
 
The occasionally contentious exchange dominated the headlines.  The evangelical voters of Iowa were well in the rearview mirror, and Santorum’s campaign in the Granite State was marked by cantankerous young people, Occupy Wall Streeters and fire marshals at nearly every stop, taking head counts and kicking out overflow crowds.
 
"We were not ready as a campaign for prime time," Biundo said.  They spent a lot of time in New Hampshire, but little money.  "It was almost the worst of both worlds," he recalled.
 
The narrative of a campaign stuck on social issues was building.  They were off message in New Hampshire, and it paved the way for losses in South Carolina, Florida and Nevada.  It seemed as though Santorum would go out like a one-hit wonder in the vein of Mike Huckabee in 2008.
 
*****
 
But as the Santorum campaign was losing, it was also building.
 
After the South Carolina primary, they hired someone with the title of national political director, Andrew Boucher.  He began building beyond the carve-out states.  The Northeast Iowa Director became the Colorado State Director and then the Washington State Director.  In many cases, they had no paid staff on the ground until a couple weeks before a primary.  In Georgia, where Santorum finished third behind Gingrich and Romney, the campaign relied on an all-volunteer staff.
 
Though fundraising had picked up after Iowa, the money was still tight.  Their solution was to pay one or two people in a state who would help guide the volunteer efforts.
 
"Instead of the infantry model, it's the special forces model of going in, working with the people that are already there on the ground, organizing them, helping them achieve goals," said Boucher.
 
Flying so low under the radar is a large reason why Santorum was able to sweep Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri on February 7.  The three victories would be the second biggest night of the Santorum campaign, but also would make them the Romney campaign's No.1 target, something that their money and organizational deficiencies could not overcome.
 
*****
 
Santorum's hands-on approach kept his campaign in the black for much of his run, but it also caused some avoidable headaches.
 
"I don't want someone trying to tell me what to say," he told staffers during a meeting.  It meant he rarely traveled with anyone from his communications team. There was no one from his team to explain the candidate's statement that President Obama is "a snob" for wanting “everybody in America to go to college,” a statement he made in Michigan in the days leading up to the state's all-important primary.
 
There was no press secretary on the ground to help deflect the repeated questions he faced about contraception and other hot button social issues that frequently drove the campaign off message and painted Santorum as a candidate on the wrong side of women's issues.
 
"We're about to go nuclear with Iran, we have a trillion dollar deficit and we're talking about this.  Are you kidding?" recalled Elizabeth Santorum.  "That was something I got asked all the time: 'You're a woman, how do you support your dad?' That's so insulting."
 
One of the most striking differences between Santorum and his GOP rivals was that he took nearly every question posed to him from reporters following him on the road.  It meant he would find himself answering repeated questions about social issues when he wanted to talk about the economy.  Toward the end of his run, his frustration became more visible.
 
In Wisconsin, after suggesting in a speech that Romney was the worst Republican to run against President Obama, he infamously called a question from the New York Times' Jeff Zeleny "bulls***."
 
(After the blowup, aides said Santorum turned to them and said, "I hope that wasn't a local reporter."  He soon found that Zeleny worked for The Times, and called senior strategist John Brabender to say they were going to "own it."  Shortly after, a fundraising email was shot off to supporters that said he was "aggressively attacked by a New York Times reporter".)
 
Despite the campaign's efforts, Santorum was never able to make the narrative about his economic plan.
 
*****
 
Wisconsin proved to be the final blow.  On April 3, Santorum delivered his concession speech at the Four Points Sheraton in Mars, PA, where staff met for hours discussing Pennsylvania primary strategy.  Though everything the candidate said seemed to indicate he would continue in the race, his inner circle knew the money had dried up.
 
And on Good Friday, as the Santorum family was taking time off for Easter, three-year-old Bella Santorum needed to be rushed to the hospital due to complications stemming from a rare genetic disorder she suffers from, called Trisomy 18.
 
"It was the first three days we had off together since Christmas, and the first day we were in the emergency room.  And you just kind of wonder, can someone cut us a break?" Elizabeth Santorum said.
 
It brought clarity to the decision.  Even the "shoestring campaign" had gone into debt by April, and the all-out blitz it would take to win Santorum's home state would only further put him in the hole.  So around 2 am on April 10, the campaign sent out a press release announcing an event in Gettysburg, PA that afternoon.
 
It was in the town, where the bloodiest battle of the Civil War took place, that the candidate who had once been branded a long-shot ended his run.
 
"People say, 'How did this happen, how did we come from nowhere?' It's because I was smart enough to figure out that if I understood and felt at a very deep level what you were experiencing across America and tried to be a witness to that, tried to be an interpreter of that, that your voice could be heard and miracles could happen, and it did," Santorum told reporters on the last day of his campaign.
 
In all, he won 11 states, the same number Ronald Reagan won in 1976. It's a fact he liked to point out often, and has fueled plenty of speculation the 53-year-old has plans to run again --  just like Reagan.
 
"I walked out after the Iowa caucus victory and said 'Game on.' I know a lot of folks are going to write, maybe those even in the White House, 'Game over,'" Santorum said in the final lines of his drop out speech.  "But this game is long, long, long way from over."