Rick Santorum Finally Calls It Quits
As far as challengers to a party establishment are concerned, Rick Santorum was unique. Unlike Ronald Reagan, Santorum didn’t lead an ideological faction. Unlike Gary Hart, he wasn’t the young and dynamic future of his party. He didn’t lead a marginalized wing of the party coalition, like Jesse Jackson did, and he wasn’t a media favorite, like John McCain was.
Indeed, there’s a reason why every pundit, myself included, dismissed Santorum as a long shot in the race for the Republican nomination. As a candidate, Santorum combined doctrinaire conservative beliefs with a hostile, combative persona. He wasn’t just against gay rights or abortion; he thought they were destructive to the fabric of the country. It’s not that he opposed Barack Obama; it’s that he argued that the president would turn the country into a Marxist wasteland.
But if Rick Santorum was completely unsuitable as a major party nominee, how exactly did he come from behind to stand as Mitt Romney’s most viable challenger?
The important thing to remember about Santorum’s success—he won 11 states—is that it had less to do with his campaign or his persona and everything to do with what he represented in the Republican nomination contest. For all the focus on his inevitability, the fact is that, from the beginning, conservatives didn’t want to support Mitt Romney. For months before the primaries began, conservatives rallied to anyone who seemed like a plausible alternative to the former Massachusetts governor—hence, the rise of Herman Cain and the surprising strength of Newt Gingrich.
By the time of the Iowa caucuses, Cain had dropped out, Rick Perry was a joke, and Michele Bachmann was one poor performance away from leaving the race. If there was anyone left for conservatives to support, it was either Santorum or Gingrich. Santorum scored a near win in Iowa (which, after a recount, became a win), but Gingrich captured conservative hearts in South Carolina, and for a while, it seemed that the former House speaker would become the standard bearer for conservatives. But he faltered in Florida and left Santorum as the only Romney alternative standing.
That was enough for conservative voters. Santorum didn’t win the Republican base or rally them to his side. Rather, he was the vessel for conservative discontent and a means for conservatives to exercise as much influence as possible on the Republican presidential primaries. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the GOP base would have latched on to anyone as long as they had a sufficiently conservative record. Sure, Santorum wouldn’t beat Romney—he had neither the money or institutional support for that, and besides, conservative leaders had already resigned themselves to the likelihood of a Romney nomination. But he could be used to force Romney’s complete commitment to conservative ideas.
From Florida onward, that’s more or less what happened. Santorum attacked Romney from the right, won a few primaries, and forced the former Massachusetts governor to stake more and greater claims to right-wing orthodoxy. Among other things, Romney has denounced Obama’s “war on religion,” promised to defund Planned Parenthood, and pledged to take an ax to the federal budget.
Going forward, the big question for Romney’s campaign is whether he can flop to the center after making a huge flip to the right in his quest for the nomination. By pushing Romney further to the right, Santorum has made that a much more difficult task. Not only have Romney’s positions moved away from the center, but because of his efforts to outdo Santorum, Romney is now associated with the most unpopular aspects of the Republican agenda; a majority of Americans don’t trust him to address women’s issues, and women as a whole are deeply hostile to the former Massachusetts governor.
That Romney has to overcome a huge favorability gap is, in part, a product of Santorum’s candidacy. And if Romney is dragged down by his ties to the conservative movement, he’ll have Santorum to thank for putting him in a position to fail.
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