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Rickrolling at the Iowa Caucus

Over the last few years you may have come across the Internet meme known as “Rickrolling.”A little over four years ago, someone decided it would be funny to start posting deceptive links online that appeared to lead to legitimate Web sites, but instead led unsuspecting Web surfers to an obscure music video on YouTube.

If someone thought he was clicking on, say, a bit of political news, he would instead suddenly find himself watching the music video for Rick Astley’s 1987 hit song “Never Gonna Give You Up,” — one of the more garishly awkward artifacts of 80s pop culture.

In one version of the gag, an online article would claim to link to a video of Michelle Obama engaging in a racist rant against “whitey.” Instead, readers who clicked on the link found themselves watching the gangly Astley bob and weave over a techno beat, draped in various atrocious combinations of high-waisted denim, trench coats, and buttoned-up golf shirts.

If somehow you’ve managed to go through life without being fooled by the “Rickrolling” Internet gag, consider yourself fortunate. As an indictment of the white man, Astley’s dancing was perhaps more effective than any racist rant could ever be. We white boys aren’t known for our killer beat box moves.

In hindsight, “Rickrolling” never was all that funny. Nevertheless the meme caught on. And before long, tens of millions had experienced this new way to waste time on the Internet.

A Brand New Way to Rickroll

This week in Iowa, Republicans created a brand new kind of Rickroll. They found an awkward white guy — in this case a sweater vest-wearing ex-senator from Pennsylvania — and thrust him into the consciousness of tens of millions of unsuspecting Americans.

Rick Santorum, the latest anyone-but-Romney candidate to catch fire in the GOP race, appeared in fifteen debates over the last eight months and never managed to break out of the low to mid single digits in national polls.

A mere two weeks ago, an Iowa State University poll pegged Santorum at 4.9 percent — lower even than the “I Can’t Decide” category of prospective voters. When there are more people who don’t support any of the candidates than there are who support you, some might say it’s time to bow out.

But here we are, a mere two weeks later, and Santorum came within eight votes of winning the state. Suddenly, one in four Iowans have decided Santorum is the man they’ve been waiting for all along. Forgive me if I’m skeptical.

The voters that once supported Michelle Bachmann, then Rick Perry, then Herman Cain, then Newt Gingrich — this group has decided it’s Santorum’s turn.

In any case, they have now nearly run out of non-Romneys and non-Ron Pauls. If Santorum eventually fades under the hot lights of first-tier status, are we to expect these voters to be swooning over Jon Huntsman by Valentine ‘s Day? I wouldn’t discount the possibility.

So far, frontrunner status has been more than any candidate could bear for more than a few weeks. Only Romney has been able to maintain first-tier status over the long haul. Nevertheless, Santorum is better prepared and more disciplined than most of the early frontrunners.

Santorum’s success in Iowa was, paradoxically, aided by his relative obscurity. Faced with a dwindling list of alternatives, voters in Iowa were able to project onto Santorum whatever they desired in a non-Romney candidate.

As for Romney, he remains a favorite to win the nomination, but it’s clear that many Republicans don’t trust him and continue to see him more-or-less as a candidate of last resort.

This election cycle has been notable for the inability of anyone-but-Romney voters to coalesce around an alternative candidate. A candidate that could sustain the support of this group and unite the non-Romney voters might, just might, have a chance to beat Romney. But with New Hampshire up next, Romney’s momentum is sure to build.

The question for Santorum is whether he has staying power over the course of a long, costly primary race, or whether, as I think is more likely, his present surge represents nothing more than an amusing diversion — a political Rickroll, if you will — on the way to an eventual Romney nomination.

This article originally appeared in the International Business Times and is reprinted here with permission. Follow Nathan on Twitter @nathanharden

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