The Corner

The Santorum Conundrum

Why don’t pundits take him seriously as a presidential contender?

Rick Santorum is the most frequently underestimated politician of our lifetimes. Santorum is always the underdog. Perhaps that’s one reason his sympathies lie with underdogs, his message is crafted toward underdogs, and his support often comes from those a bit lower on the socioeconomic scale than the voters Republican office-seekers typically attract.

But Santorum is determined to do things his own way, while significantly outworking all his competitors. As he makes the national rounds with his new book, Blue Collar Conservatives, while obviously looking toward another possible presidential run, Santorum again faces deep skepticism from most political handicappers. There is every reason to believe he’ll give those prognosticators some anxious moments again in the early spring of 2016.

#ad#That’s what underdogs do, especially when other underdogs rally around them: They make the supposed cognoscenti look silly.

The mystery, the conundrum, is why the pundits continue to repeat the same mistake of underestimating Santorum. One would think they would instead try to figure out the reasons for his successes, so they won’t be burned again.

Let’s zip through three different aspects of Santorum’s appeal: first, his new book; second, a what if look back at his 2012 campaign; and finally, very briefly, a look ahead at 2016. In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that Santorum endorsed and campaigned for me when I ran for Congress last year, but this analysis is consistent with what I’ve been writing for well over a decade.

Fortunately, Patrick Brennan already has done a great job introducing NRO readers to the essence of Blue Collar Conservatives. Wrote Brennan:

[Santorum is] tapping into a rising trend in the conservative movement: the realization that the solutions of the Reagan years don’t match up with today’s problems, and that conservatives need reform-minded ideas that focus on working Americans.

This isn’t a new idea for Santorum: In his 2005 book, he derides his deficit-obsessed GOP colleagues in the Senate as essentially “cheap liberals,” and he proudly worked on a number of anti-poverty bills while a legislator. He even turned his Senate office into a welfare-to-work program: He describes in his book how, when setting up his constituent office in depressed Harrisburg, Pa., he hired five employees who were on welfare. One of them, a single mother, risked losing her subsidized child care by taking the job, and could swing it only by finding family members who were able to help take care of her kids.

More broadly, Santorum for decades has been making the same critique of Republican rhetoric that Alabama’s Senator Jeff Sessions has finally gotten attention for pounding home in the past year or two. At the heart of his approach, as he writes in his book, is this:

We need to think about, listen to, and talk about the jobholder as well [as the entrepreneur]. If conservatives got the vote of every job creator in the country, we’d still lose. We must earn a large proportion of the votes of jobholders, because there are far more of them.

Santorum’s book is admirably replete with specific policy suggestions that fit this template of a conservatism for jobholders, along with his uniquely emphasized (and perhaps a bit too repetitive) linkage between the erosion of traditional values and the economic plight of non-professionals. This was one of the things the media missed in 2012: When Santorum spoke about social mores during his presidential battle, he did so not as a scold but, instead, almost always in the context of economics, as in his mantra that “the most effective antipoverty tool is a combination of work, education, and marriage.” His new book, in a fashion more enjoyably readable than most political manifestos, effectively explores the implications of that thesis both for policy and for politics.

On the latter, Santorum quite effectively revisits the arguments that he, Andy McCarthy, and others (me included) made during the 2012 primaries about why Mitt Romney would have a very difficult time defeating Barack Obama — not as a slam against Romney, whom he mostly praises in this book, but as part of his argument about what Republicans must do better if they are to win in 2016. In sum, as Sean Trende has shown at length, Romney lost largely because 6 million expected voters who “tended to be downscale, blue-collar whites” — 20 years ago known as Perot voters, and before that as a large portion of the broader set known as “Reagan Democrats” — stayed home.

The key thing with those voters is that they already had mostly decided against Obama. The question was, Would they be motivated enough by the Republican nominee to stand in line to vote after a long work day, or just stay home and wish a pox on both houses? As Santorum relates in his book, Romney pollster Neil Newhouse concluded that these are precisely the voters who in primary after primary turned out in late afternoon or early evening to give Santorum electoral surges well exceeding the projections of early exit polls.

Herein lies a counterfactual argument that I’ll go to my grave believing. Probably half or more of NRO’s readers might not just disagree but think the argument is utterly absurd, but one could certainly read the data to support it. To wit: While it would have been close, Santorum probably would have beaten Obama in November 2012.

#page#People should start by remembering just how close Santorum came to completely popping Romney’s bubble of nomination inevitability. First, a miscount of the Iowa ballots cost Santorum early recognition of his victory there, thus keeping him from being clearly enough anointed as the main “conservative alternative” to push Newt Gingrich aside before the South Carolina primary. (Gingrich’s win there, and thus his continued presence in the race, clearly helped Romney avoid being utterly swamped by Santorum in several subsequent states.) Second, a swing of just 6,000 votes in Ohio and one misguided robocall in Michigan kept Santorum from winning those two key contests, and either victory might well have effectively ended Romney’s viability. Finally, had Paul Ryan endorsed Santorum, whose political profile is far more similar to Ryan’s than Romney’s was, rather than making his successful gambit for the vice presidential nod, Santorum might well have won Wisconsin.

#ad#Just about any of those Midwestern wins might well have spurred Santorum to the Republican nomination.

Conventional wisdom, of course, says that Obama then would have romped in November. As usual, conventional wisdom is nonsense. The anti-Santorum argument is that his outspokenness on social issues would have scared off so many single women, socially liberal suburban moms, and young voters as to make victory impossible. This argument completely misses the reality that Romney, too, was utterly destroyed in these same demographics, as would have been just about any Republican nominee. It would have been difficult for any Republican to do much worse than Romney among those voters; hence, it stands to reason that Santorum could do only marginally, rather than substantially, worse.

But those losses arguably would have been more than countered by the Perot voters identified by Trende. Given a chance to replace Obama with a white-bread plutocrat who belittled the “47 percent” while complaining not a peep about Obamacare, they stayed home. But presented by an underdog of palpable sincerity who spoke with passion about blue-collar concerns, they probably would have detoured to the polls on their way home from the factories or fields.

In the cultural wars of “us against the man,” Santorum clearly is an “us.” Minus the character flaws, Santorum is the Pete Rose or the Jimmy Connors of American politics, the guy with whom supporters can identify for his work ethic, enthusiasm, and lack of blow-dried pretensions.

It’s not just disaffected whites who would have supported Santorum more than they supported Romney. Odd as it might sound, Santorum could have attracted at least a few more percentage points of Hispanics as well. After all, again as Trende has shown, Hispanics vote far more on economics than on, say, immigration, and their attitudes on that front somewhat mirror those of blue-collar whites. Plus, to the extent that at least some Hispanics, as devout Catholics, are motivated by culturally conservative concerns, the Catholic Santorum would have won over this smallish subset far more readily than did the wealthy Mormon Romney. As Trende wrote, when it came to the effectiveness of minority outreach (and despite Romney’s best intentions), “Romney was one of the worst imaginable” Republican candidates.

An analyst must of course acknowledge that Santorum’s tendency to inspire more outright antipathy than the blander Romney would have made it hard for the former to achieve any more than a narrow victory. A 2012 Santorum landslide is impossible to fathom. Nonetheless, it is hardly unreasonable to posit that Santorum, with the aforementioned advantages, ultimately could have threaded the electoral needle. Remember, too, that some of Santorum’s supposedly rough edges could have been ameliorated by the choice of a reassuring running mate, much as G. W. Bush benefitted stylistically from his choice of Dick Cheney (a choice met with near-universal media respect back then, more than a year before Cheney was Darth Vaderized). Jon Kyl comes to mind, or, if Santorum wanted to roll the dice a little, perhaps Kelly Ayotte, who would be tough for the Left to caricature in the Sarah Palin fashion.

Meanwhile, can anyone doubt that Santorum, unlike Romney, would have made Obamacare an overarching issue and garnered at least a little more support because of it?

Nobody can prove what might have been. But it stands to reason, based on Santorum’s record of punching well above his perceived weight in 1990, 1994, 2000, and the 2012 primaries, that he would have found a way to make a spirited and close race against Obama by galvanizing the “blue collar conservatives” celebrated by his new book.

The candidates, of course, will be different in 2016. The news will be different. The political topography won’t be the same. And Santorum will seem, to some voters, like “old news,” rather than a fresh face in the presidential sweepstakes. It would be premature and foolish, therefore, to do as I did in mid-2011, namely predicting that Santorum would emerge as the conservative alternative to Romney even though he was running last in the polls. But it is not premature to do as I did in 2010, to say how absurd it is for pundits to write him off. The message of his new book is almost pitch-perfect, and Santorum has proved he can carry the tune.

— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. Follow him on Twitter: @QuinHillyer.

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