Why Rick Santorum won’t stop

April 13th, 2012



This piece was originally posted on Politico.

“Irrelevant.” With one word, Sen. John McCain dismissed Rick Santorum’s role in the Republican presidential race.

Santorum’s response? “I’ve endured about eight months of people saying that,” he told The New York Times. “I’ve never been the party establishment’s candidate, and that holds true today and that’s nothing new.”

So why is he still running?

Santorum is a movement candidate. A movement is something people believe in and belong to. A campaign is something people support. Santorum claims to be carrying the flag for the conservative movement. “As conservatives and tea party folks, we are not just wings of the Republican Party,” he told the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. “We are the Republican Party.”

Are they? The Republican Party nominated McCain for president in 2008. He had run against the conservative movement in 2000 and was distrusted by the right. The Republican Party is about to nominate Mitt Romney for president in 2012. Romney is, first and foremost, a businessman. Definitely not a movement politician.

Movement conservatives like Santorum consider Romney an imposter. He signed a health care mandate into law in Massachusetts, for goodness sake. Nonetheless, conservatives have begun to coalesce behind Romney. Why? Because he looks like the only candidate who can defeat President Barack Obama.

Leading conservative activists have met three times this year to try to unify their movement behind Santorum (January and March in Texas, this month in Virginia). But look what happened last week in Wisconsin. Republican primary voters who called themselves “very conservative” split evenly between Romney and Santorum. Those who “strongly support” the tea party movement went for Romney. Romney even nearly overtook Santorum among evangelical voters.

The only Republican voters who gave Santorum a clear edge were those who said abortion was the top issue. They were only 12 percent of Wisconsin Republicans. There is a danger here that Santorum may become a single-issue crank candidate.

But he has one other thing going for him: anti-establishment resentment. The GOP establishment says the race is over, that Romney is the inevitable nominee. Eighty percent of Wisconsin Republicans agreed. To which many conservatives say, “Nuts.”

Conservative strategist Richard Viguerie, who has been running insurgent campaigns since the 1980s, told POLITICO, “Establishment Republicans and the media are telling everybody it’s over with… . [Santorum] has got to get access to a microphone.”

What would he say? Something like this: “We will now allow the establishment to shove Romney down our throats.”

Santorum would have to win roughly 70 percent of the remaining delegates to win the nomination. That’s not just unlikely. It’s delusional.

Meanwhile, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has all but suspended his campaign, says he is staying in the race to keep Romney from moving to the center. “People walk up again and again,” Gingrich told The Washington Post, “and say, ‘Please stay in and please fight for conservatism.’” Conservatives are worried about an “Etch-a-Sketch’’ nominee.

If Santorum and Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul can keep collecting delegates, they hope maybe they can prevent Romney from claiming a majority of the delegates before the convention in August. But with large, Romney friendly states like New York, New Jersey and California set to vote in the next two months, the odds of an open convention look remote.

Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention told POLITICO, “There’s nothing in the Republican Party constitutiton that requires it to commit suicide.” Land came up with a new scenario: “If Romney’s trailing Obama in the polls come July 1 … it wouldn’t surprise me to see establishment Republicans looking someplace else.” But if Romney is losing to Obama, would Santorum do any better?

Santorum sure thinks so. He often compares himself to Ronald Reagan running against President Gerald Ford in 1976. “Everybody told [Reagan] to get out of the race,” Santorum said after the Wisconsin primary. “They said, ‘Get out of the race, we need a moderate.’” And what happened? The party nominated Ford and lost. Reagan was there to pick up the pieces and say, “I told you so.’ And claim the nomination himself four years later.

That may be what Santorum is aiming to do. But there is one thing he and other conservatives need to keep in mind: Reagan was not an easy candidate to elect in 1980. He frightened voters. They thought he was too extreme, too likely to start a war.

Voters desperately wanted to get rid of President Jimmy Carter in 1980. But they didn’t feel it was safe to vote for Reagan until the last week of the campaign — after his one and only debate with Carter. That’s when Reagan used his brilliant closing statement (“Ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago?”) to convince voters that he was not a monster and would probably not do the radical things he sometimes said he wanted to do.

In the end, Reagan got less than 51 percent of the vote. He was able to beat Carter by 10 points, however, because John Anderson got 7 percent.

When Reagan ran for reelection in 1984, he had a far easier time because voters felt reassured. The economy was improving and he had not started a war or thrown old people out in the snow.

Reagan does not prove how easy it is to elect a hard-line conservative in this country. He proves how difficult it is.

Bill Schneider is the Omer L. and Nancy Hirst professor of public policy at George Mason University and a resident scholar at Third Way.