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The Santorum Surge and Its Larger Meaning

A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato

Real votes make clear what polls cannot fully pick up. The Republican election season has been shaped by two forces, other than the obvious one to oust President Obama. First, the strongest potential candidates did not enter the fray, and the remaining contenders do not satisfy most GOP voters. At every polling opportunity, Republicans have expressed their desire for a wider choice. Put another way, Republicans would love to combine the economic acumen of Mitt Romney, the social conservatism of Rick Santorum, the debating skills of Newt Gingrich and the enthusiasm of young voters for Ron Paul into one candidate. That feat must await several generations of advances in genetic engineering.

The second force that has defined the GOP contest cannot be denied. A sizable section of the party base, arguably a majority, does not connect with or trust the establishment pick for the nomination, Mitt Romney. The old "dog food" anecdote is overused, but never has it applied more precisely. Romney's can of dog food has the handsomest label, the best placement in the store by the grocers, the most astute TV advertising, but the only problem is the dogs turn up their noses at the can's contents. Perhaps canines are still in a snit about Romney's positioning of Seamus in a cage on top of the family car back in 1983.

Republicans Consider Santorum

Buyer's remorse is very common in the history of presidential nominating politics. Just when it appears that one candidate is headed for the party nod, the voters pause and say, "wait a minute, let's think about this some more, the frontrunner's inadequacies trouble us." Then they opt to keep the contest alive by elevating one of the other candidates -- for a while, at least. Rarely, though, has buyer's remorse been as acute as in 2012. In fact, it is not at all clear that most Republicans have ever bought into Romney at all. Temporary non-Romney frontrunners included Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann, not to mention ghost frontrunners (such as Chris Christie) who never entered the race. Romney has only floated to the top in the absence of a well known substitute.

Of the three remaining non-Romney alternatives, only Ron Paul has never held the title of king-for-a-day. Newt Gingrich has risen from the dead twice, and he will persist as long as his iron will and Super PAC angel Sheldon Adelson's money hold out. His chances of becoming a three-time Lazarus are not bright, but remembering the first two resuscitations, who would risk real money to bet against him?

However, it is Rick Santorum who wears the current anti-Romney crown. Propelled by an unexpected trio of victories in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri on Feb. 7, Santorum now leads Romney in most national surveys, some by a wide margin. More disturbing for Romney, Santorum is ahead of him in Romney's native Michigan.

As we've just suggested, Santorum is partly on top because he is the latest "great anti-Romney hope." But it is more than that. As the economy improves and President Obama's ratings creep upwards, many Republicans have become less certain that any nominee is going to defeat the incumbent. This may change if worse economic numbers crop up later in the year and high gas prices begin to take a presidential toll. But for the moment, the trend is encouraging activists to look beyond Romney, the economic manager, to someone whose social-issue conservatism and blue-collar image may enable the GOP to serve up a different kind of presidential option.

A few intellectual leaders of the Republican party's right-wing have begun to convince themselves that Santorum may be a risk worth taking. He gives activists some fallback reasons to vote should economic recovery continue, and he will stir the base, especially Tea Partiers and evangelical Christians. GOP enthusiasm has been on the wane lately but with Santorum, goes the thinking, GOP turnout may increase. (The swing independents in competitive states are another matter. Many independent analysts think Santorum is too far right on social issues to be elected in November.)

A Brokered Convention?

There is an additional rationale for the Santorum surge. It is no secret that some highly placed Republicans are rooting for the fabled "brokered convention," a situation that can only arise if no candidate gets the 1,144 delegate majority and the leading contenders -- perhaps because they have learned to hate one another -- cannot agree upon a joint ticket that would produce a delegate majority in Tampa. If Santorum can start to win more contests, and Gingrich and Paul stay in and grab their share too, Romney may not be able to go over the top, opening the door to -- whom exactly? We keep hearing the same names (Mitch Daniels, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Paul Ryan) except that none of them seem interested in the slightest.

If no candidate wins a delegate majority, the brokers may well be the candidates themselves. Their delegates are bound for at least one ballot, and most are personally loyal to the candidate and may follow his lead for multiple ballots, if it comes to that. Romney, Santorum, Gingrich and Paul will have slogged through all 50 states by convention time. Why would they permit someone who slept in his own bed and had regular meals for the past year to swoop in and take the big prize? More likely, perhaps through trusted intermediaries, the four contenders would negotiate a solution -- a ticket, platform and prime-time speech schedule. The alternative is chaos of the first order, with thousands of journalists hovering in Tampa to report every epithet uttered by delegates determined to get their man nominated.

Probably, one way or another, this apocalyptic vision will be dashed. It may well be that Romney is able to replay Florida, targeting Santorum in Michigan the way he did Gingrich in the Sunshine State. Romney will outspend and out-advertise Santorum for sure, and his attack machine may work its black magic anew. Romney remains the nomination favorite and the only candidate with the organization, money, and national backing to compete effectively in most states most of the time. But so far, even Romney's most ardent backers have to admit that the opposition to their candidate is deeper and broader than they expected. It is less improbable than before that Republicans will have a "1964 moment" and upend the best laid plans of party strategists.


We're more than eight months away from election day, and it is too soon for any fair-minded analyst to project an election outcome. Still, the year isn't turning out the way Republicans had hoped. There is no unifying candidate in sight, and the contenders are savaging each other in ways that are saving the Obama campaign the cost of TV consultants' creative fees. Slow but steady economic progress is also producing the 50%+ job approval ratings for an incumbent that historically have led to reelection.

In the topsy-turvy world of politics, things can shift overnight, and 2012 is already setting records for the wanton destruction of carefully crafted conventional wisdom. Republicans, in their winter of discontent, must hope the seasons change with a vengeance. Meanwhile, the warm winter has thawed the once-frozen prospects of a second Obama term.

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

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Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.   Comments about this content should be directed to the author.

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