Santorum’s close defeat in Michigan is both a blessing and a curse for him. A blessing, because it demonstrates that he, unlike Mitt Romney’s previous conservative rivals, has staying power. A curse, because a glance at the exit polls suggests that the strategy Santorum is pursuing will, if not changed, ultimately prove unsuccessful.
After Santorum’s trifecta, I wrote that he needed to understand that “the path to the nomination runs through the somewhat conservative vote. . . . Somewhat conservative voters like experience and judgment along with their principles. Santorum needs to keep his head about him and speak in modulated tones to show he can talk the talk and walk the walk.” I called this the “base-plus strategy.” Instead, Santorum employed a base-only approach, spending much of the last couple of weeks making gaffe after gaffe on social issues and religion and often speaking in tones more reminiscent of an Old Testament prophet than a president. The result: He lost the somewhat conservative vote in Michigan, 31 percent of the electorate, by a whopping 18 points, 50–32.
Santorum’s Michigan coalition looks like the same base-only rump that backed Pat Buchanan in 1996 and Mike Huckabee in 2008. He carried white evangelicals by 51–35, but they were only 39 percent of the electorate. He carried very conservative voters 50–35, but they were only 30 percent of the electorate. He won those who said it was very important that a candidate shared the voter’s religious beliefs by 63–21, but they were only 24 percent of the electorate. He won those who believe abortion should be illegal in all cases by 60–25, but they were only 23 percent of the electorate. These voters are the heart and soul of the Republican party, but they are not enough to propel a candidate to victory. Despite the best efforts of our most vocal conservative friends, pursuing this strategy is what gave the Republican party Bob Dole and John McCain.
A winning conservative strategy makes common cause with those Republicans who are sympathetic to, but not part of, the party base. It reaches out to somewhat conservatives who live in the suburbs. It emphasizes prudence and judgment as well as principle; it seeks, like Ronald Reagan, to call forth the better angels of the American nature.
Rick Santorum can pursue his base-only strategy and do well for about a month. He can use it to win the caucuses in North Dakota, Alaska, Washington, Hawaii, and Kansas. He can win primaries: Oklahoma, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. He could even win Ohio next week, whose electorate is slightly more favorable to Santorum than Michigan’s. But it won’t be enough.
Santorum’s path to the nomination ultimately runs through California, which offers a treasure trove of delegates on a winner-take-all-by-congressional-district model. And California remains a suburban state whose Republican voters prefer a sober conservative to a firebrand: It gave John McCain 48 of the state’s 53 CDs four years ago. If Santorum wants to give an acceptance speech in Tampa rather than a prime-time endorsement of Mitt Romney, he needs to start talking to Republicans who are slightly less conservative than himself. And he needs to start today.
— Henry Olsen is a vice president at the American Enterprise Institute and the director of its National Research Initiative.
“I’m the best candidate to beat Barack Obama, because . . . I draw a clear contrast,” says Rick Santorum. But Democrats disagree. They think Mitt Romney is the best candidate.
That was the message of the Democratic party’s extraordinary effort to get out their troops to vote for Santorum in Tuesday’s Michigan primary.
From thousands in Obama-super-PAC money to auto-czar op-eds to 24/7 talk-radio calls to implement Operation “Santorum Chaos,” Democrats played every trick in the book. They salivate over the opportunity to run against Santorum, a polarizing, undisciplined social conservative — but fear Romney’s unique Michigan assets in this must-win Democratic state. If Obama is fighting for Michigan this fall, he is in trouble.
Conservatives have good reason to be skeptical of the former Massachusetts governor, yet he has responded to the challenge by doubling down on conservative principles. His economic speeches to the Detroit Economic Club and Americans for Prosperity were detailed, growth-oriented plans for Washington reform. Romney’s discipline contrasts with Santorum’s display of a troubling tendency toward undisciplined detours — into JFK attacks, and comments on Obama’s alleged snobbery about wanting higher ed for all.
— Henry Payne is editor of TheMichiganView.com and editorial cartoonist for the Detroit News.
John J. Pitney Jr.
The Michigan exit poll showed that Catholics made up 30 percent of the GOP primary electorate. By a 44–37 percent margin, they favored Mitt Romney over Rick Santorum — even though Santorum is Catholic. There are probably multiple reasons for this outcome, but a comment by Santorum may have alienated his coreligionists. In a Sunday interview with George Stephanopoulos, he said that John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech to Houston ministers made him want to “throw up.” Santorum explained that Kennedy was wrong to suggest that religion should have no influence on politics. As a matter of principle, Santorum may have had a point: Indeed, WFB made a similar argument. But as a matter of political prudence, it was a mistake to attack John F. Kennedy personally and in such graphic terms. By more than a 2–1 margin, Republicans view JFK favorably. After all, Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp liked to cite his muscular anti-Communism and support for tax cuts.
Santorum’s penchant for unforced verbal errors is among his greatest problems. He doesn’t have much time left to fix it.
— John J. Pitney Jr. is Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.