The Inexplicable Rise of Rick Santorum

(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum answers questions at a news conference at the statehouse Monday, Feb. 13, 2012, in Olympia, Wash.

As recently as last month, I couldn’t have predicted that Rick Santorum would be leading national polls for the Republican presidential nomination. That’s not to say that I didn’t think about it, but it seemed unfathomable. Not only does Santorum have the dubious distinction of having lost a re-election race by 17 points, but he’s been synonymous with extreme social conservatism for at least a decade.

In 2002, he blamed sexual abuse in the Catholic Church on “secular liberalism” and “moral relativism,” and in the following year, gained national notoriety for comparing same-sex marriage to “man-on-child” or “man-on-dog” sex. Even now, with his full-throated attack on contraceptives, he insists on alienating the vast majority of Americans who don’t hold to an idealized version of Victorian social mores.

But to a large minority of Republican primary voters, this history of reactionary rage and electoral failure doesn’t matter. According to the latest poll from CBS News and The New York Times, Santorum is slightly ahead of Mitt Romney with 30 percent support to Romney’s 27 percent. Among conservative voters in particular, that lead expands to 38 percent over Romney’s 24 percent. This is in line with surveys from the Pew Research Center, which shows Santorum with a lead of 30 percent to 28 percent, and Gallup, which shows Romney with a similarly small lead of 32 percent to Santorum’s 30 percent.

Of course, all of the obvious caveats apply. There are no national primaries in the Republican presidential contest, and as we saw with Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich, support from the base—even enthusiastic support—is fleeting and subject to wild swings. Even still, this is remarkable. By this point in the game, Mitt Romney was supposed to be the presumptive nominee, with the party ready to support his charge at Barack Obama. And to a large extent, he still is—Romney has the deep institutional support and deep pockets that are characteristic of a nominee.

But the strength he radiated at the beginning of the year seems to be a mirage, the product of facing off against a host of poor, ill-prepared candidates. In reality, Romney is much weaker than anyone expected, and still struggles to gain support from the conservative voters who form the base of the Republican Primary.

In a different primary, with a stronger frontrunner, an off-brand candidate like Rick Santorum would have remained on the outskirts of the race—a gadfly, of sorts. But because of Romney’s profound weakness as a politician, the former Pennsylvania senator has a slim shot at the nomination. Indeed, he currently leads in the crucial Michigan primary on February 28, which is a make or break state for Romney, whose father governed the state. What’s more, Super Tuesday is less than a month away, and it is something of a national primary, with ten states voting on the same day. If Santorum continues to gain steam, he could do very well.

In which case, Republican elites have every reason to reach for the panic button.

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