Spin Cycle

02.13.12

Santorum’s Popularity Puzzle

The latest GOP hearthrob and the volatility of polling.

What explains Rick Santorum’s sudden surge in the polls?

Yes, I know he won Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri last week, stunning the pundits (who had all but written him off) and revitalizing his candidacy. But still, the numbers are amazing.

Here’s a Pew Research poll that has Santorum edging Mitt Romney, 30 to 28 percent, with Newt at 17.

A Public Policy Polling survey has Santorum rocketing to a 38-23 drubbing of Romney—and a 39-24 lead in Mitt’s kinda-sorta home state of Michigan, where his father was governor.

Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz on the Santorum puzzle: How did he go from crickets to nominal front-runner in the polls?

But stop and think: Santorum is a guy who a week ago could barely buy a headline. He was derided as a true-blue conservative with less charisma than his sweater vest. Now, at least nominally, he’s the Republican presidential front-runner. How is that possible?

“These conservative blocs are desperately seeking someone other than Romney,” says Andrew Kohut, the Pew Research director. After the brief star turns of Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Gingrich, “the list is getting ever smaller.”

That’s obviously a factor, despite the “severely conservative” Romney winning the CPAC straw poll last week.

Another theory is what I call the halo effect. Santorum’s triple-triumph night transformed him from loser (except in Iowa, belatedly) to winner (and a surprise one at that). And Americans love a political rags-to-riches story, which plays into Santorum’s grandson-of-a-coal miner narrative.

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But at the heart of the transformation may be the electability issue. Romney’s candidacy is premised on the notion that while he may not set Republican hearts aflutter, he’s the best bet for beating Barack Obama in November.

If the former Pennsylvania senator runs just as strongly, however, Mitt’s argument evaporates and many conservatives will want to rally behind a guy who doesn’t have to insist he’s a conservative. In that Pew poll, Obama beats Romney 52 to 44, and beats Santorum 53 to 43. Those aren’t bad numbers against an incumbent this far out, and they’re virtually identical.

National Review is pushing Newt to get out, a development that, while it seems unlikely for now, would enable Santorum to consolidate the anti-Mitt vote, as he did in Missouri. In a piece titled “Santorum’s Turn,” the editors say: “It is not clear whether Gingrich remains in the race because he still believes he could become president next year or because he wants to avenge his wounded pride: an ambiguity that suggests the problem with him as a leader. When he led Santorum in the polls, he urged the Pennsylvanian to leave the race. On his own arguments the proper course for him now is to endorse Santorum and exit.

Finally, Santorum’s three-state sweep brought him a wave of media attention, which may prompt some voters to give him a second look. He showed up Sunday on Meet the Press, This Week and State of the Union. Such exposure is critical this month, when there’s a lull in the calendar and all of one debate, on Feb. 22.

But with that exposure comes the kind of tougher journalistic scrutiny that Santorum hasn’t really experienced in this race. On NBC, David Gregory prefaced a question about gay marriage by saying, “I want to stay on some of the social issues that have come, I think, to define your campaign.” Santorum shot back that social issues are not defining his campaign.

On ABC, George Stephanopoulos asked about an earlier comment to CNN’s John King in which Santorum said he worried that women’s “emotion” might make them unsuitable for military combat. Then Stephanopoulos cited Santorum’s book, It Takes a Family, “where you seem to suggest that a lot of women feel pressure to work outside the home because of radical feminism.” Wouldn’t that “alienate” female voters?

Santorum finessed the question by saying his wife, Karen, had helped him write that section. It’s a safe bet the tough questions will keep on coming, and how Santorum responds may determine whether he can stay at the top of the polls.