Raw Politics: Can Santorum's Michigan campaign count on a volunteer army?
Rick Santorum speaks during a campaign stop while surrounded by supporters at the The Colonial Valley Suites on February 26, 2012 in Davison, Michigan. (photo credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
February 27th, 2012
04:40 PM ET

Raw Politics: Can Santorum's Michigan campaign count on a volunteer army?

Editor's note: On the eve of the Republican primaries in Arizona and Michigan, tune in to AC360 for Raw Politics at 8 and 10 p.m. ET.

Rick Santorum is no stranger to unorthodox scheduling decisions: this is the campaign, after all, that scheduled a major economic speech for a Friday night, where news stories generally go to die. So there’s a certain sort of logic to the fact that their big home-stretch phone-banking event in Michigan - featuring some of their candidate’s highest-profile surrogates - happened to coincide with the top of the Academy Awards broadcast. (In some ways, it’s an understandable oversight: there are no visible TVs at the Troy rent-an-office currently serving as the campaign’s only official Michigan base.)

Still, there was a healthy showing yesterday. Reality show stars Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar spoke to an enthusiastic group drawn from all across the southeastern part of the state, pointing to the divine roots of Santorum’s rise as several in the family-heavy crowd nodded their agreement. “You can see the hand of God in what’s happened in this campaign,” said Jim Bob Duggar. “We have to pray that God move the hearts of the people to support Rick Santorum.” Some of the volunteers present looked eager enough to hit the streets that night.

As the rally portion of the evening drew to a close, organizers revealed a late agenda tweak: it had occurred to them that bombarding Michigan Republicans with unsolicited post-9 pm phone calls on a Sunday night might not be the wisest move in a close race. The merits of the decision were undebatable. But it also meant the 40-plus volunteers present – four times the phone-banking manpower the campaign had on hand the day before – were left with just three options: handmade sign-making; experimenting with one of the half-dozen or so chilly and neglected pizzas in the corner; and posing for pictures with the three Duggars on hand. The final option proved the most popular.

Still, some in the crowd were hoping for more. During the Duggars’ question and answer session, Dearnborn homemaker Cynthia Blaha turned to a Santorum staffer instead, telling him she wasn’t getting the sort of information she needed to organize volunteers or direct supporters to Santorum rallies. That information is posted to the campaign website. But for it to reach her in time to make a difference, it has to hit her inbox.

“I don’t know Gov. Romney. We haven’t heard from Gov. Romney,” she said later. “He hasn’t really given us a sense of who he is. Sen. Santorum HAS. He speaks from the heart.” For Romney, said Blaha, she’d probably turn out - “although my heart wouldn’t be in it.” But for Santorum, a fellow home schooler, she wants to do more. “If we hadn’t aborted 60 million of our babies, we’d have enough of a population to support Social Security. Rick Santorum is the only candidate who really understands this.”

Like Santorum’s campaign, Mitt Romney’s didn’t have an official headquarters or formal campaign infrastructure in the state until this month, either. What he does have are disciplined supporters at events, gathering contact information. Where the Santorum campaign has an edge is in the steady supply of volunteers passionate about their candidate – many, like Blaha, volunteer veterans of the Bush campaign.

But unlike the mostly-centralized Romney effort, many of these volunteers have been divided into parallel networks, the majority predating the official Santorum presence by weeks or months. These networks allow a relatively underfinanced campaign to essentially outsource a fair amount of traditional campaign duties: much of the canvassing, phone banking, and other efforts that drive turnout on Election Day. And they include grassroots activists with long reaches and organizing savvy, like homeschoolers, Tea Partiers from inside and outside the state, and some high-profile state evangelicals.

“Our plan is to spend the next 72 hours calling Michigan voters, identifying Santorum supporters, and getting them out to vote on Election Day,” wrote Michael Centanni of Freedom's Defense Fund, in a weekend message warning supporters that Santorum didn’t have the money he needed for last-minute voter identification and get-out-the-vote phone calls. “In a close election, it could be the difference between defeating Mitt Romney and allowing him to be our GOP nominee. We can't let that happen.”

Santorum’s challenge: to figure out a way to constructively marshal the energy of these supporters and move his campaign into a higher gear and avoid overlapping efforts, despite relatively little formal communication between the camps. The campaign, which still lacks a national headquarters, has incorporated some of the trappings of a traditional presidential effort: it’s still tapping into Voter Vault; it’s still launching thousands of robo-calls a day. Yet more Romney representatives can often be seen working a single Michigan event than the half-dozen full-time aides Santorum has assigned to the entire state.

At his first stop Monday, a Chamber of Commerce breakfast in Livonia, Rick Santorum greeted an audience that grew increasingly engaged as his speech progressed from economics into religious and foreign policy terrain. The event closed with a standing ovation.

“I’ve been following his career for a long time,” said Redford resident Paul Bonenfant, 61. “It’s going to be close. I don’t have a negative opinion of Romney. But unless you’re old enough like me to remember his father, you have no connection to the man. Rick Santorum really speaks to what we care about – the pro-life issue, the welfare issue.”

But if Bonenfant wanted to volunteer for Rick Santorum, or donate, or even get a reminder from the campaign to turn out Tuesday, he’d have to seek that information out elsewhere. Because the sign-holding volunteers in front of the speech venue were Obama-Biden supporters; Santorum and his entourage retreated from sight within 10 minutes. And there were no campaign-connected supporters, official literature or sign-up sheets in sight.

Follow Rebecca Sinderbrand on Twitter.

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Filed under: 2012 Election • Mitt Romney • Raw Politics • Rick Santorum
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