Last Tuesday, a small number of voters in two caucus states, and
voters in a basically meaningless primary (it did not choose any
delegates, and one major candidate was not even on the ballot) created
one more in an endless series of"political" bubbles in the Republican
contest for the 2012 presidential nomination.
Rick Santorum won all three of these events. He was expected to win
two of them. He defeated Mitt Romney by a narrow margin in Colorado
where he was expected to come in second. Now we will have a second
Santorum "bubble" (the first occurred after Mr. Santorum tied Mr.
Romney in the Iowa caucus). The first bubble lasted only a few days
because in the next voting, the New Hampshire primary, Mr. Santorum
trailed far behind. In subsequent voting, including South Carolina,
Florida and Nevada, he did not do well, coming in a distant third or fourth.
First, I want to give Rick Santorum some personal credit for the campaign
he has run this cycle. No one gave him any chance to emerge at the outset
of the campaign, and he was not impressive in the early debates. But he
persisted and worked hard, and he stuck to his guns as clearly the most
consistently social conservative candidate in his party. Other candidates
had better resumes, were more colorful, and had much more resources, but
one by one they fell by the side of the political road. Mr. Santorum is now
"somebody" in his party, and he earned it the old fashioned way. Mr.
Santorum, it needs to be added, has not yet needed to defend any personal
baggage as the hitherto major candidates attacked each other with bitter
personal attacks and advertising.
Mr. Santorum, as certain as his poll numbers will now rise, will also
receive the vetting he has not had until now. A two-term U.S. senator
from Pennsylvania, he was defeated for re-election by 18 points in 2006.
Subsequently, Mr. Santorum went to "K" Street in Washington, DC,
and became a millionaire in short order. Both his serious rivals, Mr.
Romney and Mr. Gingrich (as well as Barack Obama), became self-made
millionaires, so that in itself is not an issue, but now there will be a
serious examination, as happened with his rivals, of how he made so
much money. One of Mr. Santorum's strengths is also one of his
vulnerabilities, that is, his dogged persistence of many of his very
conservative ideals. An example of this occurred in the recent debates
when Mr. Santorum confronted Mr. Romney on the issue of restoring
voting rights to convicted felons. Mr. Santorum tore into Mr. Romney's
position of not restoring those rights, but as Mr. Romney pointed out,
the vast majority of voters, no matter the compassionate principle, will
not respond to a candidate who makes this issue into a big deal. Mr.
Santorum is also much admired in the pro-life community as one of
their most consistent champions, but his views on the subject are
absolute. All of the Republican candidates are pro-life, but Mr. Romney
makes an exception in the case of rape, incest and the life of the mother.
This is where the majority of Americans are, particularly independent
voters, and it is a certainty that Mr. Obama's campaign would make
much of this should Mr. Santorum be the nominee.
Since a true vetting has not yet taken place, I am not going to make any
judgment on any character issues regarding Mr. Santorum. Like Mr.
Romney, he appears to be a model husband, father and family man.
The punditocracy, left and right, as well as the partisan spinmeisters,
will now suggest that Tuesday was further proof that Mr. Romney is not
nominatable because the Republican base does not trust or like him.
While this may ultimately have some validity, Tuesday "proved" nothing
of the sort. The relatively small number of voters on Tuesday were events
ideal for fringe candidates. Ron Paul and Mr. Santorum did well because
their base of energized voters showed up. Mr. Romney and Newt Gingrich,
who have larger bases of support in the party did poorly, but their
showing does not necessarily reflect what lies ahead when the largest
number of delegates are selected.
Mr. Paul is a fringe candidate in any case. Like Mr. Santorum, he has
stuck to his principles throughout the campaign, but there is no
evidence that beyond his small base he has any support among the
Republican electorate. He has made some excellent points on the
domestic economy, but his foreign policy and national defense views
are in direct opposition to the widely-held views of the great majority
of Republicans of all stripes.
Mr. Gingrich seemed to be left out of Tuesday's voting. He did not
even appear on the ballot in the only primary, Missouri. But the next
important day of voting, Super Tuesday in early March, will include
states he might win, including Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma.
Mr. Gingrich himself has had a serious of extreme ups and downs,
debate triumphs, attacks on his character, and miscues. He must do
well on Super Tuesday. If he does not, his only hope then would be a
brokered convention in Tampa. Mr. Gingrich' challenge now is to
reach deep down inside himself to discard his oft-cited insecurities
and make himself not only the smartest candidate and the best debater,
but someone genuinely appealing to voters.
I am amused by the "new" conventional wisdom that Mr. Romney
is now not only no longer the frontrunner, but not acceptable to his party.
All this based on three states where a small number of activist voters
dominated the elections. (Only two days before, the "old" conventional
wisdom had him almost the inevitable nominee.)
Let me use the Minnesota caucus to prove my point. I live in Minnesota,
and have been critical of its precinct caucus system for decades. Less
than 1% or 2% of eligible voters show up at the caucuses. The vast
majority of Minnesota voters gave up on them years ago when it became
obvious that, in both parties, these caucuses were being used by tiny
minorities of special interest voters to impose themselves on the majority
of voters. The vote totals in these caucuses chronically reflect an elitist
and anti-democratic system in Minnesota, one that has worked time and
again against majority voter opinion. Neither Mr. Paul nor Mr. Santorum
could carry Minnesota in a general election while, in my opinion, either
Mr. Romney or Mr. Gingrich could.
A "bubble" for Mr. Santorum over the next few weeks is inevitable. No
doubt he will also receive an infusion of cash, and an influx of campaign
volunteers. Perhaps he will survive the vetting he will now receive. But we
have been through these "bubbles" before, and as I suggested in a recent
column, winners of GOP primaries and caucuses find their momentary
triumphs easily turn into a negative political "curse."
Nor will Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich stand quietly still during the next
three weeks. They and their supporters are not going to passively default
to a tiny number of activist voters and let them dictate the Republican
nomination for president. Is it possible that Mr. Santorum to follow through
on Tuesday? Yes, but the patterns of this campaign year suggest that to obtain
the nomination in Tampa and win the general election, the Republican
nominee will have to have broader appeal than just a party base.
If the Republican Party does not appeal to a majority of voters, especially
to the most voters in states with the most electoral votes, they will not win
next November. The opponent of the Republicans may be, as I have
suggested, a failed president who cannot bring the nation out of its
current crisis, but he is not yet a failed campaigner. In fact, he has shown
himself to be an effective campaigner. Give him the "wrong" opponent, and
he will take him to the showers.
This year's campaign has just begun. As befits a truly historic election, the
battles ahead will be epic and extraordinary.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman
All rights reserved.