Politics

02.27.12

The GOP’s Panic Over Rick Santorum

On the eve of major primaries, party leaders are convinced that a Santorum victory would doom their entire ticket in the fall. Michael Medved on why Mitt suddenly looks much more appealing.

For more than six months, worried conservative chieftains talked up the need to unite behind a single rightist candidate in order to block the potential victory of the “mushy moderate” from Massachusetts, Mitt Romney. Now, on the eve of crucial primaries in Michigan and Arizona, and with Super Tuesday looming just one week later, some of those same leaders speak privately of the need to unite behind that same, once-dreaded Romney in order to avert an even more dire disaster: the nomination of Rick Santorum.

These shifting calculations by activists and elected officials stem in part from new polling information that turns long-cherished conventional wisdom on its head. Since the beginning of the campaign, experts assumed that the plethora of conservative contenders (remember Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann?) served to divide right-wing sentiment, making Romney triumphs far more likely, even with a purported ceiling to Mitt’s support of 30 percent.

According to this logic, Romney’s chances for the nomination depended on keeping multiple opponents in the race to split the conservative votes against him. But suddenly, new numbers suggest that the remaining spoiler candidates (Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul) actually take votes away from Romney, and serve mostly to make a Santorum success more plausible.

A Gallup Poll on Feb. 20 showed Santorum with a comfortable lead over his three opponents—leading Romney 36 to 26 percent, with Gingrich and Paul trailing with only 13 and 11 percent, respectively. At the same time, a head-to-head matchup between the two frontrunners proved much closer—50 to 44 percent for Santorum over Romney, just outside the margin of error. In other words, more Gingrich and Paul voters, if forced to choose, seem ready to cast their lot with Romney rather than with Santorum.

For Republicans, the key question is no longer whether they’ll overcome their reluctance and skepticism to accept Romney for the nomination. The bigger dilemma now is whether they can overcome their panic and outright dread and embrace Righteous Rick as their standard bearer. Despite his lead in Gallup’s preference poll, less than a third (32 percent) of GOP voters see Santorum as the strongest challenger to Obama; a big majority (58 percent) agrees that Mitt has the best shot.

Why, then, Santorum’s continued strength in national surveys and his strongly competitive numbers in Michigan and Arizona?

For those who hold elective office, their own careers are at stake if a polarizing, unpopular candidate drags down the entire Republican cause.

In part, this willingness to support Santorum while still viewing Romney as vastly more electable relates to the spreading gloom over Republican prospects in general. With an apparently improving economy and rising approval ratings for the president, a plurality of Americans now believes that Obama will “definitely” win the race. For some conservatives, the mounting sense that any champion they select will inevitably lose in November encourages the idea that the Republicans might as well send a passionate, politically incorrect, in-your-face message with bomb-thrower Santorum rather than making a safe, dull, practical choice for Romney.

Political insiders, however, must worry about more than electoral disappointment at the presidential level: for those who hold elective office, their own careers are at stake if a polarizing, unpopular candidate drags down the entire Republican cause. Only three current members of Congress have endorsed Santorum: Reps. Glenn Thompson, Tom Marino, and Lou Barletta, all of them his fellow Pennsylvanians (but none of whom actually served with the former senator and House member during his 16-year congressional career).

Meanwhile, more than 80 members of the House and Senate formally back Romney—a reflection of the fact that many of these working Republican pols would prefer to join forces with a businesslike Romney administration than trying to cope with the emotionally charged “conviction politician” known to some colleagues as “Prickly Rick.” The overwhelming preference for Romney among elected officials didn’t come through some conspiratorial establishment anointing: like all questions concerning the motivations of politicians, it’s easiest to explain these endorsements in terms of self-interest.

With Democrats promising to spend hundreds of millions in a determined bid to recapture the House, and with Republicans mounting a supreme effort to win the four Democratic seats they need to win control of the Senate, the members of Congress naturally want a candidate at the top of the ticket who will make their own races easier, not harder. Even veteran incumbents with only token opposition still care deeply about the overall outcome: if the GOP loses the House, then Republicans must give up all the committee chairmanships and other prerogatives of power they currently enjoy.

Moreover, some strategists and activists worry that a Santorum nomination could damage the GOP brand in a way that would continue to harm the GOP cause for a generation. The former senator appears appallingly eager to entangle himself with a cluster of controversies that would make him especially unpalatable to younger voters. His enthusiastic insistence on condemning contraception (even while saying he’ll do nothing to restrict it), as well as making disapproving (and utterly unnecessary) comments about prenatal testing, women in combat, premarital sex, and the satanic takeover of Hollywood and the NBA, leave him with few supporters among the millions of Americans between 18 and 25 who may be voting for the first time in 2012.

Those votes count as especially important because once a young person identifies with a political party it shapes a habit that influences future choices. In 1984, that lovable geezer (and one-time Hollywood star) Ronald Reagan did spectacularly well with voters below the age of 25—beating Mondale by 61 to 39 in this youthful segment of the electorate. That special appeal to young voters (based to no small extent on Reagan’s genial temperament and optimistic outlook) helped produce major GOP victories in many of the races that followed, bringing public identification with the Republican Party close to Democratic affiliation levels for the first time since FDR.

It’s hardly unreasonable to assume that a Santorum campaign, with its inevitable aura of moralistic scolding and religiously rigorous self-righteousness, would produce the opposite impact on most citizens under 25, who won’t appreciate the former senator’s outspokenly dubious attitude toward their generally unmarried and often unsettled lifestyles.

Even for Republicans who assume that any nominee would lose to Obama, it therefore makes sense to fear a Santorum catastrophe (like Goldwater’s devastating, across-the-board wipeout in ’64) more than a more conventional defeat for Romney (perhaps in the style of Bob Dole in ’96, when the GOP retained both houses of Congress).

This compelling concern over Santorum’s damage to other candidates on the GOP ticket may help encourage odd alliances against him—such as the increasingly apparent cooperation and mutual respect between Romney and Ron Paul, with his special appeal to young voters. It may even allow the one-time Massachusetts governor to pull out the victories he needs next Tuesday in both Michigan and Arizona, if wavering supporters of Paul and Gingrich decide at the last moment to make their votes count to stop Santorum.

If, on the other hand, Mitt loses both Michigan (the state of his birth) and Arizona (where he had been heavily favored only two weeks ago) he will face increasingly noisy demands to call off his campaign in order to allow the emergence of a more dynamic, last-minute contender (Chris Christie, call your office) to fight off a kamikaze crest for Santorum.

Though many Republicans feel resigned at the moment to likely defeat in the presidential race, the way that they lose (and the extent of their losses in down-ticket races) will exert a profound influence on the long-term future of the party.