Politics & Policy

Again, Why Not Santorum?

Rick Santorum speaks in Loveland, Colo., February 4, 2012.
He’s a true conservative and he can win.

Missouri’s “beauty contest” primary on Tuesday could be Rick Santorum’s big chance. If he defeats Mitt Romney in that event, as at least one poll shows he is poised to do, the punditocracy and public alike might finally recognize the considerable upside he would offer Republicans as their presidential nominee.

Rick Santorum can win the Republican nomination. Rick Santorum can indeed beat Barack Obama in the fall. And Rick Santorum can and would govern at least as conservatively as Ronald Reagan did.

The evidence of his principled, mainstream conservatism is unambiguous, as is his record of winning long-shot races. What hasn’t been fully understood yet is why, and how, Santorum could win the Republican nomination and the presidency.

#ad#Let’s start with a few underappreciated realities about opinion polls held so far in advance of a general election. First, favorable/unfavorable ratings, along with the level of name identification, are far more important than direct “horse race” numbers. Second, poll “internals,” along with focus-group data if possible, should be interpreted to assess how much growth potential a candidate has, along with what his downside political risks are.

If a candidate has been widely known, and widely disliked, for a long, long time, that candidate has little room for growth. Very few public officials in American history, for instance, have as longstanding a record of horribly unfavorable poll numbers as Newt Gingrich has had for 17 years now. (His particularly dreadful polling problems among women, for instance, seem flat-out insurmountable.) Santorum, on the other hand, is far less well known, so he has a greater chance to move polls in either direction as voters get to know him better. The interesting thing to note here is that he continues to do better in polls the more he is known to the general public. That’s a serious sign of growth potential. Even better, even as the general public was first really looking at him, Santorum already was doing as well or better than Mitt Romney in head-to-head matchups against Obama in the key states of Florida and North Carolina.

Within the GOP, as Bill Kristol argues, Santorum probably has a better chance to defeat Mitt Romney head to head than Gingrich does. Polls bear that out. A number of polls also show that whereas a significant portion of Santorum voters would prefer Romney to Gingrich (this is Gingrich’s polarizing nature again coming into play), the vast majority of Gingrich voters would move to Santorum in a two-man race against Romney. That’s why, one on one, Santorum can beat Romney but Gingrich can’t.

When the “internals” are analyzed, Santorum rates particularly high on personal character, on sincerity, and on steadfastness of principle. Those are bedrock traits that, over a long campaign, help secure a voter’s comfort level with a candidate. A comparison with Reagan is in order here. While Santorum certainly hasn’t shown Reagan’s preternatural communication skills or sheer — almost magical — personal likeability, what matters in a race against a weak incumbent in a weak economy is that voters give themselves the psychological go-ahead for changing something as important as the president. Fear of the unknown runs strong. Even against an absurdly weak Jimmy Carter in 1980, it was only in the last week that voters swung sharply Reagan’s way: They needed reassurance, from watching his demeanor in debates, that he wasn’t the nuclear cowboy the Left tried to portray. Santorum’s palpable decency and sincerity can offer a similar reassurance against Obama. Someone as volatile as Gingrich cannot.

Santorum’s track record also indicates that he wears well over time. Witness his success in the Iowa caucuses, where voters had many months to size up the candidates. Witness his four upset (or at best even-money) victories in Pennsylvania. He doesn’t offer flash and sizzle, but in a long campaign, such as in the media-intensive slog that is a general-election presidential race, his personal and political virtues have time to become more apparent.

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This is especially true when one considers that he has come so far already despite being the least well-funded of any candidate in the race. Santorum knows how to live off the land and still find ways to win. In the fall campaign, though, money will be no problem for him. The stakes are so high that no Republican-leaning donor will stay on the sidelines. If Santorum can compete as well as he has without a big war chest, imagine what he can do with serious financial resources behind him.

#ad#Meanwhile, he’s steady as a rock. For all of Gingrich’s and Romney’s vaunted debating skills, both of them have put forth at least two real clunkers of debate performances. Santorum hasn’t had a single bad debate or a single major stumble, and his reviews have become only more favorable with each contest. In a race where the economic lay of the land disfavors the incumbent, flash matters less than solidity in a challenger. It probably won’t require some sort of game-changing debate performance for a Republican to defeat Obama — but a game-changing gaffe or embarrassment could well lose it. Of all the Republican candidates, Santorum has shown himself the least prone to such gaffes.

Meanwhile, conservative leaders finally are beginning to rally around Santorum. Just in the last week they have begun to pour in. In Nevada, he secured the backing of tea party favorite Sharron Angle, while Gingrich is reportedly fading. In Colorado, Santorum achieved an absolutely remarkable troika of endorsements: anti-illegal-immigration hardliner Tom Tancredo and solid mainstream conservative Bob Schaffer, both former House members, along with the far more “establishment” (but still clearly conservative) former lieutenant governor Jane Norton. If he did that on a national scale, it would be like securing the backing of the Buchanan wing, the original Reagan wing, and the Bob Michel wing of the GOP.

Also stepping up for Santorum in the past week were conservative columnists extraordinaire Michelle Malkin and David Limbaugh. They join a growing list of dozens of key state legislators across the country and, quite significantly, nationally known conservative worthies such as Richard Viguerie, Gary Bauer, Michael Farris, James Dobson, Elaine Donnelly, Colin Hanna, Phyllis Schlafly, Pat Boone, and Maggie Gallagher, along with the well-publicized votes of social conservative leaders who met in Texas a few weeks back, as announced by Family Research Council chief Tony Perkins.

It’s also hard to find a major national conservative leader who thinks poorly of Santorum. (Gingrich is just the opposite.) While they haven’t endorsed, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Sarah Palin, William Bennett, and NR’s own Rich Lowry and Kathryn Lopez are among the many who have had plenty of kind things to say about him. He could unify the Right, whereas the viciously bitter fights between Romney and Gingrich make it very clear that large numbers of Republican activists feel too passionately against one of the other two to lend any real assistance if their disfavored candidate gets the nomination.

All of which is to say that Santorum’s potential for electoral strength is good, while his risk of disaster is rather low. Right now the only thing keeping him from being a clear winner is the failure of even more Reaganite leaders — all of whom know him to be a dependable, full-spectrum conservative — to stand up for him in the same way that he has stood up for conservative principles for so long. With Malkin, Angle, Limbaugh, and Bob Schaffer now coming on board, that odd reluctance might be coming to an end.

If it does, watch Rick Santorum surge again.

— Quin Hillyer is a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom and a senior editor for The American Spectator.

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