To be fair to Santorum politically, he is the de facto runner-up in a contest in which virtually no one gave him any chance at the outset. Clobbered by almost 20 percentage points in a 2006 re-election campaign for his seat in the United States Senate, he ran for the presidential nomination on a shoestring and was widely deemed too conservative, even for Republican primary voters, to have any chance at electoral success. But he defied the odds and managed to win Iowa and several other states. These triumphs are particularly notable in that Santorum had to overcome the financial and organisational might of the Romney campaign to win.
To be fair to Santorum personally, he is one of a relatively small number of right wing politicians who actually lives his belief system. The father of eight children is hugely devoted to them and to his wife and attends Mass daily. He is a far cry from hypocrites like Newt Gingrich.
What does the undeniable success of Rick Santorum’s long shot presidential candidacy say about Mitt Romney, the presidential election later this year and, more profoundly, the future of American politics?
Mitt Romney has finally achieved what he has been chasing for close to a decade. Elected Massachusetts governor in 2002 on something of a fluke – the Democratic nominee offered a bizarre response to a debate question on the sensitive issue of parental consent for abortions that turned the tide in the closing days – those who saw him in action are of the view that his guiding governing principle was to do as little harm as possible to his future presidential prospects. He also sought successfully the chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association that allowed him to travel around the country making contacts and, by all accounts, never had any intention of seeking re-election. His four years as Massachusetts governor were just a line on his résumé.
Since he left the governorship in early 2007, Romney has been a full-time presidential candidate with the exception of a short break after he lost the 2008 campaign for the Republican nomination. Consequently, he had more money, more endorsements and a much better organisation than any of his rivals for the nomination this time around.
Yet garnering the nomination has been a fight every step of the way. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, and others before them, forced Romney to move further to the right and to spend a lot more financial resources than he would have hoped. Although Gingrich and Santorum are weak political candidates, they managed to expose the real difficulty that Romney has in connecting with “ordinary Americans.” While Romney has polled extremely well with affluent voters, he has performed relatively poorly with less well-educated, less wealthy primary and caucus goers. What’s more, the difficult campaign revealed that Romney, the presidential candidate straight out of central casting, is gaffe prone. And these gaffes – like trying to make a $10,000 on the spot bet with Texas Governor Rick Perry and stating that several hundred thousand dollars isn’t very much money – have only confirmed perceptions that he is out of touch with the struggles of millions of Americans.
Moreover, Romney will have to defend his past in a general election. While working as a venture capitalist who presided over numerous job losses and factory closures mightn’t be a handicap in a Republican primary, it will prove a significant liability against Barack Obama in “rust belt” states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. His Mormon faith, just as it has been in his quest for the Republican nomination, will also be a problem for some voters. Lastly, there is his ongoing ideological journey. Having started out in Massachusetts as a moderate, he has moved well to the right. He will doubtless try to tack back to the centre now. Many voters won’t buy it, or, worse still, will conclude that he has no core.
For all of the foregoing reasons, and as evidenced by the long and drawn out battle for the nomination, Mitt Romney is not a strong standard bearer for the Republicans again President Obama. As such, it will be an uphill battle for him to become the 45th President of the United States. His background as a venture capitalist does incalculable damage to his prospects in the “rust belt”; his being forced so far to the right flank on social issues to win the Republican nomination makes it difficult for him to compete on the coasts. Although Romney will undoubtedly run well in the south, that’s not enough.
It would seem that Romney’s only chance will be if he is able to win the state of Florida and its 29 Electoral College votes. He can count on the strong support of popular former Governor Jeb Bush and may pick Senator Marco Rubio as his running mate. Notwithstanding early polls that give President Obama the edge, the state will certainly be close. If Romney were able to win Florida, the outcome of the election might well come down to a handful of electorally small states, such as Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Hampshire and New Mexico, with very different dynamics and populations than they once had. But the changed dynamics in these changing states in a changing country favour President Obama’s re-election.
This reality of a changing America sits uneasily alongside the relative success of Rick Santorum’s presidential candidacy that was predicated, in so many ways, on opposition to change. The number of votes he received is indicative of just how many Americans don’t like what is happening to a country they don’t much recognise anymore – and Santorum’s intentional appeal based on his working class, blue collar roots in the Republican caucuses and primaries only scratched the surface.
Whether it’s experiencing some of the incredibly harsh realities of life brought on by globalisation, or feeling detached from a contemporary culture that is perceived to eschew traditional values and embrace moral relativism, or falling through the cracks of the ever widening gulf between rich and poor, or seeing a people whose collective complexion is far darker than it once was, many Americans think the country has changed, and is changing, for the worse. They are afraid, and their fear is understandable to some extent.
Theirs is a constituency of tens of millions of Americans throughout the United States. They don’t fit easily in either the Democratic Party or Republican Party because they tend to be conservative socially and populist economically. They have voted for candidates of both parties over the last several election cycles and help account for the wildly vacillating fortunes of the two parties in recent years. I don't know if they will ever find a political home. But it will be immensely interesting to see how the two parties chase their votes in this election year and in elections to come.