{{show_title_date || "Down in polls, Rick Santorum takes the long view on 2016, 7/22/15, 10:55 PM ET"}}

Despite abysmal polling, Santorum campaign ‘in a growing mode’

Updated

Rick Santorum returned to Iowa this week under considerably less-than triumphant circumstances. A new CNN/ORC post-debate poll released Wednesday found just 1% of likely Iowa voters would support the former Pennsylvania senator if the caucuses were held today. That ties him with former Texas Gov. Rick Perry in 15th place among the crowded GOP presidential field.

Even more disappointing for Team Santorum? One percent is the highest amount of support the presidential hopeful has seen out of four surveys conducted since last week’s inaugural Republican primary debate – a crucial opportunity for candidates, especially those running toward the back of the pack, to stand out.

On Tuesday, a poll from Suffolk University showed that just 0.6% of Iowa voters picked Santorum as their first choice if the caucuses were held today. Asked the same question in a Franklin Pierce University/Boston Herald survey, 0% of New Hampshire voters said Santorum was their guy. Things don’t get much better on the national scale – Santorum pulled in 0% support among GOP primary voters in the latest NBC News/Survey Monkey poll, down from 1% prior to the debate.

RELATED: Santorum campaign rips Fox News debate picks as ‘preposterous’

Seems like quite a bit has changed from four years ago, when Santorum brought home 11 states including Iowa in the 2012 GOP primary race, finishing second behind the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney. So what exactly has changed for the reigning Republican runner-up? And – more importantly for him – can voters expect to see a Santorum comeback before 2016?

Ask anyone on the campaign, and the answer is a resounding yes.

“The senator’s focus right now is on building his operation,” Matt Beynon, spokesperson for Santorum’s presidential campaign, told msnbc. “We don’t look at horse race numbers, we look at favorability numbers. And they’re good – near the top of the heap. If [voters] like you, you’re in the mix, that’s our concern right now.”

“Santorum is really stuck in the third tier right now.”
Matt Mackowiak

“The number one thing he hears from primary voters,” added Beynon, “is ‘You’re on my list.’”

Come election day, however, it doesn’t really matter if a candidate is on a voter’s list – all that matters is who’s on top. And some question whether Santorum can get there before Iowa votes on Feb. 1 next year.

“Santorum is really stuck in the third tier right now,” Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak told msnbc. “I think he has a first-tier intellect and had a first-tier performance in the last race. The unfortunate thing is he believes his second-place finish last time was entirely because of him, when in reality … it’s every bit as much because of the unique contours of that race.”

Romney emerged as the early choice of the Republican establishment in 2012, leaving the party to try out several options for its anti-establishment candidate. First up was former Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who nearly four years ago to the day won the now-extinct GOP Straw Poll in Ames, Iowa – once considered an early indicator of a presidential candidate’s strength in the first-in-the-nation nominating state. Bachmann, however, was immediately outshined by the arrival of Rick Perry, who announced his candidacy on the day of her straw poll victory. By the Nov. 9 debate, Perry’s campaign was effectively cooked thanks to his failure to remember which federal agencies he would eliminate – a moment now best described with the word “oops.”

“We’re doing probably about the same as we were last time.”
Cody Brown
Following brief GOP voter flirtations with longshots like Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, it was Santorum who became the last man standing as a viable alternative to Romney, displaying a kind of political endurance that the campaign now hopes to repeat.

“We’re doing probably about the same as we were last time,” said Cody Brown, senior Iowa advisor to the Santorum campaign. “One of the lessons we took away from the last cycle is that these polls, particularly national polls, really don’t mean much on the ground in Iowa.”

The 2016 race, however, is very different from the 2012 race. And becoming the last man standing in a field with several legitimate anti-establishment options has turned into a much more difficult feat. If for no other reason, Santorum needs to poll higher in order to literally get onto the same stage as fellow social conservatives, like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee – both of whom got to address a record 24 million viewers during last week’s prime-time debate. Santorum, relegated to an earlier forum with six other low-polling candidates, received an audience of 6.1 million viewers, by contrast. And Carly Fiorina was widely viewed as the victor of that face-off.

“Unless Cruz or Huckabee falters pretty badly, it’s hard to see how [Santorum] will consolidate support among social conservatives when he’s not getting much attention or any of the money,” Mackowiak said. “I wouldn’t be stunned if Santorum did have some success in Iowa as we get into the fall and the fruits of caucus-building are more visible. But the odds are against him.”

RELATED: Nate Silver on what to make of early polls

There’s also something to be said for the momentum higher poll numbers can generate. They tend to attract more donors, campaign staffers, and ultimately, voters – all areas where Santorum could use the help. Though he has the loyal support of GOP donor Foster Friess, Santorum is way behind in the presidential money race. Federal Election Commission filings released at the end of last month showed Santorum’s campaign had raised $600,000 with another $300,000 from affiliated PACs, or outside groups that can accept unlimited sums of money from individuals and corporations to support a candidate, so long as those groups don’t actually coordinate with the candidate’s campaign. By comparison, Cruz’s campaign has so far raised $14.3 million plus another $38 million from PACs.

A recent staffing shake-up also drew some concerned questions about Santorum’s prospects. Last month, three staffers – including campaign manager Terry Allen – departed to create a new super PAC. At the same time, Karen Fesler, a prominent Iowa activist, defected from the Santorum camp to serve as Iowa campaign statewide co-chair for Rick Perry instead.

Beynon pushed back against any speculation that the campaign was under duress, saying they’d seen an uptick in fundraising recently and that the staff reshuffling was nothing to worry about. “My guess is Terry and those folks saw an opportunity to take advantage of the bold new world we live in of campaign finance,” he said, referring to the super PAC the former campaign manager left to create.

And unlike Perry, whose campaign recently decided to stop paying campaign staff in South Carolina, Beynon said Team Santorum was actually growing. They recently brought on a New Hampshire senior advisor and plan to double the campaign in Iowa by next month.

“We’re in a growing mode unlike, unfortunately, some campaigns that have been reported this week as having to not pay staffers. You never like to see that,” Beynon said. “But thankfully Sen. Santorum is in a very different position.”

According to Karen Fesler, the Iowa activist who shifted support from Santorum to Perry last month, both candidates are still very much in the game.

“[T]hey are both masters at retail politics,” she told msnbc in an email. “Neither should be counted out until the last ballot is cast and counted.”

Polling and Rick Santorum

Despite abysmal polling, Santorum campaign 'in a growing mode'

Updated