Around 150 bigwigs from the social-conservative movement gathered in Texas Friday night to endorse a candidate. Organizers didn't come out and say it, but the implicit goal of the gathering was to rally around a single alternative to Mitt Romney before he rolls past the competition in South Carolina and Florida. Surrogates for each candidate—save Romney and Jon Huntsman—addressed the crowd Saturday morning before the voting took place. The field was narrowed down through a series of votes until one candidate could attain two-thirds support.
After three rounds, Rick Santorum emerged as the favorite, winning 85 of the 114 votes cast (some voters slipped off between the rounds of voting). Ron Paul and Rick Perry received mild support early on, but they quickly fell behind, leaving only Newt Gingrich and Santorum.
The conservative revival was held outside Houston at the ranch of Paul and Nancy Pressler. Some of the most familiar names in evangelical politics attended, including Focus on the Family's James Dobson, the American Family Association's Donald Wildmon, and former presidential candidate Gary Bauer. Family Research Council President Tony Perkins served as the group's spokesperson on a conference call following Friday's vote, during which he expressed surprise that the coalition had settled on a consensus candidate. "What I did not think to be possible appears to be possible. … There was not a lot of hope that we could come to a consensus around a particular candidate," Perkins said. "That was achieved after three rounds of balloting, and there was a strong consensus around Rick Santorum as the preference for this group." However, Perkins later noted that he couldn’t vouch that those who entered the day supporting Gingrich would shift their allegiance to Santorum. "On almost any given Sunday, somebody is going to leave church upset," Perkins said.
"Not a lot of time was spent on Mitt Romney," Perkins said of the presumptive front-runner. "It was more a discussion of positives, of the conservative candidates." When asked if Romney's religion played a role in the decision, a likely undercurrent in the meeting, Perkins claimed it was "not even discussed—if it was, it was a side note." While Perkins stressed the group's collective desire to displace Barack Obama in the fall, he couldn't assure reporters that the full group would support the eventual Republican nominee. "Based upon what participants said … if Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, or Rick Santorum would clear the nomination, there would be passionate support," Perkins said. "Beyond that, I can't necessarily say."
It's a noteworthy feature of the 2012 election that the new standard-bearer for the evangelical right is himself Catholic. But Santorum's in-your-face religiosity is more typical of evangelical leaders. It's not too surprising, though, given Santorum's place atop the bigotry pile over his decades in politics. He has retooled his latest campaign to highlight his blue-collar bona fides and plan to revitalize manufacturing, but he is still driven by an anti-gay, anti-diversity platform that falls in line with the beliefs of voters at the Texas gathering.
The Atlantic's Molly Ball traces links between the new endorsement and Santorum's come-from-behind Iowa finish. "His stunning success in Iowa wasn't just about shoe-leather campaigning," Ball writes. "Rather, it owed much to his support from similar leaders in that state—from Bob Vander Plaats, the outspoken evangelical who aired television ads on Santorum's behalf, to local pastors and radio hosts across the state's rural expanses. Each of these leaders mustered a private army to get out and vote for Santorum."
Perkins acknowledged that the meeting was an attempt to correct the mistakes of the 2008 election, when social conservatives waited too long to coalesce around Mike Huckabee. While Santorum's campaign is surely happy to receive the nod, it is probably too little, too late—the endorsement is unlikely to have the same impact in the next few primaries as in Iowa. For one, they're quickly running out of time to sway voters. Social conservatives took their time before rallying around Santorum in Iowa, but they didn't wait for the last week, which is all that remains between now and the South Carolina primary that will prove all important to Santorum's hopes. Romney has already finished first in Iowa and New Hampshire, and polls put him with a massive lead for the Florida primary. Perkins tried to downplay Romney's status as a front-runner—"If you look at the delegate count, it's far from decided," he said. But voters and donors like winners; it's hard to see any challenge maintaining much momentum if Romney steamrolls through every January contest.
In Iowa, Santorum's bounce didn't magically appear just by having the religious leaders' names in his endorsement column; they got out the vote and lent their infrastructure to Santorum's campaign. One Sioux City pastor went so far as to send out text messages to more than 800,000 Iowans, one touting Santorum and another mocking Gingrich. But it's unclear what, if any, resources Santorum will receive as a part of the endorsement. Perhaps the individual organizations will devote themselves to running ads and mailing flyers, but a disparate coalition will likely be less effective than a coordinated campaign in a single state.
Social conservatives are in an awkward spot as they move into Santorum's camp. The fundamentals of the campaign indicate that Gingrich—the candidate with the second largest support from the gathering—is better situated to stop the Romney juggernaut. Gingrich outpolls Santorum in both South Carolina and Florida and has subtly been building an organization in Florida that will likely pale in size to Romney's but should dwarf anything Santorum can assemble. Super PACs have become the defining characteristic of the 2012 primary and, here again, Gingrich outmatches Santorum thanks to his billionaire gambling buddy, Sheldon Adelson.
But Santorum has a sincere commitment to social-conservative causes that the thrice-married Gingrich can't lay claim to. "He has a record of stability," as Perkins phrased it. And after running as the positive campaigner, Gingrich has taken a sharp negative turn. He isn't just burning his opponent (common practice for primary campaigns); he's waging a campaign that could weaken Romney's general-election prospects by providing the Obama team with material for future ads to paint Romney as a jobs killer.