The Santorum Syndrome


For most of last year, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum cut a lonely figure. Driving through Iowa in his black pickup truck, he visited every county in the state, confident that his constant presence there would lead to a vital victory in the nation’s first nomination contest. His strategy was met by both his opponents and the vast majority of the media with a sad, pitying shake of the head. What was this man doing? And why would he spend so much time in a competition that he had precisely no chance of winning? As late as mid-December, Santorum was receiving less than five percent in national polls, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich held a solid lead in Iowa, suggesting the end was nigh for Santorum’s quixotic bid for the White House.Even after his surprise win in the Hawkeye State, he seemed unable to harness any momentum, and was beaten soundly in New Hampshire and South Carolina. He then finished a distant third in Florida, leaving most to wonder why he bothered to continue at all, but on he went, certain he said, that his moment was to come.

Rick Santorum speaking at CPAC FL in Orlando, Florida. Photo by Gage Skidmor, flickr.com.

Since storming back to win three straight contests in Missouri, Colorado, and Minnesota, it appears that Santorum was right. After over a year on the outskirts of the campaign, Santorum found himself at the recent debate in Arizona, front and center, for the first time considered a legitimate contender for the Republican nomination. While his opponent Newt Gingrich had chosen to run using scorched earth tactics, Santorum opted to fight a battle of attrition. Digging trenches in the overlapping Tea Party, religious, and working class wings of the Republican Party, he simply decided to wait the others out, confident that they would come and go, and he would be left to compete with Mitt Romney. Most saw this as tragically delusional, but his supporters and those who have since cast their votes for him viewed it as a sign of unwavering faith, a characteristic that goes a long way with those who now wish for him to be President.

This of course, is the good news for Rick Santorum. But, despite finding a seemingly viable path to victory in the Republican contest, few consider him a threat to win the general election. Even with an increased profile and his early success, he has yet to poll ahead of President Obama in any head-to-head poll. At first glance, this makes Santorum’s rise somewhat counterintuitive, as every survey of Republican voters that asks them what they are most looking for in a candidate comes back with a clear answer: they want someone who can beat Barack Obama. Why then is Santorum finding so much support?

The answer can be found by looking at who the people who have moved to Santorum in fact are.Not surprisingly, he has solidified his standing among those Republicans who consider themselves very religious, primarily evangelicals and conservative Catholics. These are the type of people who were disgusted when one-time prospective candidate Mitch Daniels called for a truce on social issues. Instead of a ceasefire, Santorum is willing to wage a war on those very grounds. He is unafraid to speak out against abortion. Not only does he oppose gay marriage, he doesn’t even bother to thinly veil his ardent homophobia. Santorum finds it no problem to question the use of contraception, lamenting what he sees as the moral decay of America and railing against the death of the American family. What makes these voters love him all the more is precisely the idea that discussion of these things supposedly make him unelectable. To them, this shows a conviction that once drew them to the likes of Michele Bachmann. For many such voters, hearing that this type of rhetoric damages his prospects only strengthens their support—after all, most of those criticisms are coming from moderate Republicans, the media, and the dreaded “elite.”

I first started following Rick Santorum on the campaign trail in New Hampshire. While he had no real chance at winning the state, the massive amount of publicity afforded the nation’s first primary served essentially as free advertising for a man with meager resources. It was in the first of many of his town hall meetings where he began to attack the notion that all Americans should strive to go to college. He characterized such a goal as elitist and snobbish and it seemed at first to be just another ridiculous musing from a man desperate for attention. As time has gone on, the idea is of course no less ridiculous. However, it too seems to be working for him. After all, non-college educated Americans make up a huge part of the Republican Party, and that Santorum is not just reassuring those without an education, but is even going so far as to laud them for their desire to control their lives is clearly resonating with them. Contrasted with Romney’s labored attempts to connect with the common man, Santorum appears to many of these voters as a working class hero, which of course is also a patently ridiculous idea. But, his insistence on the rebirth of American manufacturing combined with his attacks on those who he portrays as out of touch with real Americans is having its effect.

While most voters agree that the economy is the most important issue of this election, some remain insistent that social issues play an important role. This is why much of Santorum’s language blends the two together. He can appeal to these voters by claiming that children raised by one man and one woman are far less likely to enter or stay in poverty, couching his anti-gay stance in an economic concern. He can stump for marriage by stating that it helps the financial situation of both partners. And he can speak out against pre-marital sex by letting us know that teens who become pregnant have a more difficult time being economically successful. By talking about the role of the family and community in creating a successful economy, he is able to push many of his social views while discussing the major issue of the day.

Though all of this helps to explain why Santorum is finding a base of support, perhaps the greatest reason that he has moved to the forefront of the Republican race is that many voters on the rightwing of the party feel as though they are owed something. After leading the charge in the 2010 midterm elections on the heels of Tea Party resentment, many of these people are genuinely repulsed by the possibility that, but two years on, their party appears on the cusp of nominating a moderate governor from Massachusetts. This was, simply put, not part of the plan. So even though electability may be a key factor for many, most of these voters do not view Romney as remotely electable. Given that no one truly seems able to win a general election, this wing of the party may be choosing instead to make a statement. To show a willingness to burn the house down, so as to make everyone realize that, no matter how unpalatable it may be to much of the nation, they mean what they say and they say what they mean. It is not as much about Rick Santorum himself as it is the fact that he’s somehow still standing. By virtue of hanging around, Santorum has become the spokesperson for a movement without a coherent plan to govern, without an ability to appeal to most of the rest of the country, but with a truck full of fear, resentment, anger, faith, and yes, conviction.


Contributor

Michael Terry

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