Rick Santorum's newfound frontrunner status can primarily be attributed to the weakness of Mitt Romney's candidacy. The former frontrunner has bobbled away his advantage through unforced errors and an inability to convince Republican voters that he truly is one of them. Santorum was just in the lucky position of being the last plausible Romney alternative. Though most of the credit lies on Romney's shoulders, the shift in political rhetoric over the past month has helped Santorum. The resurgence of culture-war issues like birth control arrived at a prime moment for a candidate whose career has been predicated on appealing to the social values of the religious right.
We’ll have a better sense on just how Republicans are responding once the results from the Michigan and Arizona primaries come in tonight. With Arizona an assured win for Mitt Romney, the attention is centered on the Wolverine State. A few weeks ago, Rick Santorum had opened a wide lead in Michigan; now Romney has clawed back in his former home state, leaving it a tossup. Public Policy Polling's tracking numbers had Romney up by a slight 2 percent yesterday; last night PPP flipped its results and put Santorum back ahead by a statistically insignificant margin of 1 percent.
But if PPP's polls are to be believed, Republicans have in fact moved away from Santorum's religious posturing. Romney's attacks against Santorum have proven successful in dragging down the once-popular candidate, whose favorability numbers have plummeted among Republican voters over the past several weeks. Instead, it's Democrats who could tilt him over the edge today. I'll let PPP explain:
Much has been made of Democratic efforts to turn out the vote for Santorum and we see evidence that's actually happening. Romney leads with actual Republican voters, 43-38. But Santorum's up 47-10 with Democratic voters, and even though they're only 8 percent of the likely electorate that's enough to put him over the top. The big question now is whether those folks will actually bother to show up and vote tomorrow.
Why in the world would Democrats vote for the most conservative candidate in the field? New York's Jonathan Chait thinks the slight rhetorical divergences from conservative orthodoxy, such as Santorum's "populist notes, like bashing Romney for opposing the auto bailout while favoring the financial bailout" could be the reason.
But the explanation may be far simpler: Partisans love causing trouble for the other side. In 2008 Rush Limbaugh had a little fun at Democrats' expense, inciting his listeners to exploit Michigan's open primary laws to vote for Hillary Clinton to extend the race once Barack Obama appeared to have things wrapped up. With no competitive primary on the Dems' side this year, liberals get their turn. Daily Kos has pushed "Operation Hilarity," which urged Michigan readers to vote for Santorum today. The conventional wisdom is still that Romney is still the likely nominee, but the longer the race drags on the more he will be pulled to the right, troubling his efforts to appeal to independents in the general election.
Even Santorum has joined in the fun. As reported by TPM, his campaign has robocalled Michigan Democrats with a message opposing Romney. "On Tuesday, join Democrats who are going to send a loud message to Massachusetts Mitt Romney by voting for Rick Santorum for president. This call is supported by hardworking Democratic men and women, and paid for by Rick Santorum for President," a male voice says on the call.
It could be enough to tip the balance in Santorum's favor tonight. If that comes to fruition, the former moderate governor of a liberal governor won't have an easy time pitching Republicans into believing that his opponent—a candidate who has served as a liberal stand-in for the embodiment of reactionary ideals—is now the fake conservative.