Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum tours the Shrine of the Grotto of the Redemption, Sunday, Aug. 23, 2015, in West Bend, Iowa.
Photo by Charlie Neibergall/AP

Santorum visits all 99 counties in Iowa, but will it pay off?

Updated

Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is celebrating a campaign milestone on Tuesday with his completion of the “full Grassley” – or tour of all 99 counties in Iowa, the first-in-the-nation nominating state. It’s the second election in a row that Santorum has pulled off such a feat. Though it’s unlikely to bear as much fruit for the man who finished second to Mitt Romney in the Republican primary race four years ago.

“It meant a lot when the field was much less substantive and much less high-profile,” Republican political strategist Phillip Stutts said of the “full Grassley,” named after Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley’s annual visit to every county in his home state.

“If Donald Trump did all 99 counties, it’d be ‘hashtag huge,’” joked Stutts. “If Scott Walker did 99, it would be very impactful because he has the regional structure in place. For someone like Santorum, he had his chance. There are so many people in the race. And I don’t think Iowans come back to him in the end.”

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For months, Santorum has struggled to gain traction in the polls despite maintaining a near-constant presence in Iowa – a state he carried in the 2012 primary contest. A new Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll, for example, found Santorum pulling just 1% support among likely GOP caucusgoers in the Hawkeye State, far below the 23% support GOP frontrunner Donald Trump raked in. A recent Monmouth University poll, meanwhile, showed Santorum with 2% of the vote in Iowa – again way behind Trump and neurosurgeon Ben Carson, both of whom garnered 23% support among likely GOP caucusgoers.

At least publicly, Santorum tends to shrug off such results. “Four years ago, I was sitting pretty much where I am today – at the robust 1% level,” he said last week during an appearance on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher.” A few weeks earlier, Santorum’s spokesperson similarly dismissed the polls, telling msnbc the campaign was actually “in a growing mode.”

But while Santorum was able to turn that 1% support into 11 primary victories in 2012, GOP strategists say it’s a long shot for history to repeat itself.

“He is where he was four years ago; the difference is the competition four years ago was far weaker than it is now,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist who worked on John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Unlike in 2012 – when Santorum outlasted the politically volatile campaigns of former Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, businessman Herman Cain, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich – the 2016 field includes several legitimate anti-establishment candidates who are competing for the same segment of religious social conservatives. Many of those candidates – such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal – are pulling far ahead of Santorum in the presidential money race, and have yet to step in it with talk of vaccines causing mental retardation (Bachmann) or a failure to remember which federal agencies they would eliminate (Perry.)

“Before, [Santorum] was competing against the Yale football team,” O’Connell said. “Now he’s competing against the New York Giants.”

Nevertheless, Team Santorum is soldiering on, optimistic their shoe-leather strategy will ultimately pay off. Asked about his dwindling support on the eve of his “full Grassley” celebration, Santorum told NBC embed reporter Danny Freeman that he views himself as the “suburban” candidate, one whom Iowans will embrace come February 1.

Rick Santorum

Santorum visits all 99 counties in Iowa, but will it pay off?

Updated