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Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Why didn't Santorum do better earlier?

Congratulations to Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum for their performances in Iowa. And especially to Rick Santorum who no one, including myself, ever gave much of a chance. Santorum did the old-fashioned thing by spending his time and doing the retail campaigning to come from back of the pack to rocket to the top of the heap. He peaked at just the right time. And winning by just eight votes isn't much of a victory for Romney, but it sure does a lot for the future of Iowa caucuses to convince people that their individual votes count.

And who would have thought that the evangelicals of Iowa would pick a Catholic and a Mormon as their two top candidates. It rather explodes that myth that evangelicals vote only for another evangelical rather than on the issues and other qualities. Otherwise, Rick Perry would have done a lot better than he did. In fact, they split their vote just like other demographic groups split up their vote.
Santorum captured the most of them, according to this round of exit polls, but only reached 32 percent. After that, Iowa evangelicals split between Paul (19 percent), Gingrich and Romney at (14 percent) and Perry at 13 percent. (Michele Bachmann, who ran a campaign aimed heavily at those voters, won just 6 percent of them.)

That precedent suggests Santorum may leave Iowa as a powerful competitor for evangelical votes, but as a Northern Catholic is unlikely to win as preponderant a share of them as did Huckabee, a Southern Baptist.
We'll see. I might be totally off base, but I sense that the candidate's religion matters a whole lot less than voters sensing that he has a sincere belief in some religion.

And, at least, Ron Paul didn't come in first. I can't see him repeating his strength among a larger GOP electorate. Rick Perry was humiliated since he'd spent time and money there. He and Michele Bachmann need to reassess the logic of their candidacies. They each had their moments in the spotlight and didn't appeal. Iowa seems to have fulfilled its traditional role of winnowing the list down for the rest of the country. I still wonder what would have happened if Pawlenty had persevered. I know he's regretting his decision to drop out early. I suspect that he would have done much better if he'd stayed in and would have been a reasonable candidate to be the anti-Mitt for voters who aren't thrilled with Romney but still wanted someone who had executive experience and strong conservative credentials. No one else in the race fits that profile. Oh, well. Just another disappointment for us.

And Newt Gingrich demonstrated that his lead was ephemeral and couldn't stand the exposure of his personality and record. He can whine and complain, but complaints never do much to help candidates. He should be talking about his message and toning down the less-appealing parts of his personality that have been on display the past few weeks. But I suspect that it is already too late for Newt and I am not disappointed with that.

I couldn't help thinking about why Santorum took so long to emerge as the lead anti-Mitt candidate. Surely he is a more feasible conservative candidate than Bachmann and Cain. He is a better debater by far than many of the other candidates. He can express his conservative beliefs with a credibility that Romney lacks. In fact I thought he did as well when he got a chance in the debates as Gingrich although he came out as whiny about not getting attention, but that won't be a problem in future debates. Santorum seemed to stick out mostly as a social conservative and hawk on foreign policy.

I've listened to Santorum for a few years since he was a substitute host on Bill Bennett's morning radio show which I often listen to. I found him very conservative and able to use his congressional experience to clarify what was going on in fights in Congress. But he also struck me as more focused on those social issues that don't move me.

He's a lot more socially conservative than I am and how previous GOP candidates going back for several decades have been. It's not that his positions are that different from other Republican candidates; it's the emphasis that Santorum puts on those issues. They are primary with him while they were secondary or even tertiary for Romney, McCain, probably both Bushes, Dole, or Reagan. Those are positions that help in GOP primaries, but probably won't help him in the general election. However, Santorum does do a great job of linking the social issues to the economic issues by pointing out that strong families do more for a good education and a strong economy than any government program. He argues that three things will do more to help young people succeed than government policies: graduate high school, get a job, and wait until you get married before having children. It would be worthwhile to have that message reach more people.

So why did the GOP electorate toy with all these other problematic candidates instead of Santorum?

It could be that he lacks the pizazz that some of the other candidates who rose up to the top had. He doesn't have the gregarious, good humor that Cain has. He doesn't have the job-creating record that made Perry initially so appealing. He doesn't have the ability to shine in debates with that patina of professorial confidence and humor that Gingrich does. Santorum comes across as earnest and somewhat plodding. But sometimes plodding wins the race - ask the tortoise.

My only guess is that he just doesn't seem electable against Obama. He suffered a deep defeat in 2006 in Pennsylvania. It was a Democratic year and Santorum was very vocal in his support for the war in Iraq at a time when it was going particularly badly. And if Romney had run for reelection in that year, he would also have suffered a big loss. One could argue, and I believe Santorum does, that it took guts for him to run his uphill campaign without sacrificing his principles. That's a contrast to Romney.

And their backgrounds are a deep contrast between the wealthy scion of a successful man and the son of the laboring class who can relate to working people and their concerns.

We'll see how Santorum does now under the klieg lights. If other candidates start dropping out and the money really pours in to the Santorum campaign, he has the chance to make it a two-man race against Romney. Then look for some of those imaginary polls putting Obama up against both Romney and Santorum. If Santorum is way behind in those polls and Romney is competitive, that could be enough to convince those Republican voters whose main concern is defeating Obama. It would be interesting to see polls contrasting how both do against Obama in Sanotrum's home state of Pennsylvania. I think those polls are quite problematic for their predicative power. The atmosphere will be very different when it is one man against another and they're both aiming their best shots against each other. However, problematic as those polls are, I do believe that they influence voters' perceptions of how electable a candidate is. So it will be interesting to see how Santorum does after he's been pounded by the media and other candidates for a while.

I would recommend to Romney not to start attacking Santorum and for his super PAC to hold back also. Santorum isn't as rich a target as Gingrich was and Romney needs to stay focused on his tactic of concentrating on Obama since that is what most GOP voters are most interested in.

I don't think that Santorum is all that vulnerable on the pork-barrel complaint that Perry was aiming at him. People expect those in Congress to get what they can for their own states so it's not much of a surprise that Santorum did that for Pennsylvania. And he voted as a loyal Republican for big votes that came up during his term in the Senate. Are Republican voters going to penalize him for supporting President Bush? I don't think so. And then there are the people who are still angry at him for supporting his fellow Pennsylvania senator, Arlen Specter. Is that really a reason to oppose him now given the competition? I don't think so, but I know there are some diehard conservatives who won't forgive him. But if it is a two-man battle between Romney and Santorum, are they really going to base their vote on something that happened six years ago?

So congratulations to Rick Santorum and welcome to the spotlight. He now has to demonstrate his staying power is longer than all those candidates who climbed to the top of the greasy pole only to slide back down.

1 comment:

A Stephens said...

Outstanding analysis. Possibly the most even-handed commentary I've yet read. This is what blogs should do, illuminate the points, then let the folks form their own opinions therefrom. Thank you.