Underdog

03.01.12

Rick Santorum Can Regain Momentum With Focus on the Economy, Not Religion

Stop spouting off about Satan. No more calling Obama a ‘snob’ for wanting kids to go to college. Instead, more focus on the middle class and the economy—and how Mitt Romney is Mr. 1 Percent.

Rick Santorum can take some satisfaction from the fact that he split the delegates from Mitt Romney’s home state of Michigan. But this functional tie doesn’t help Santorum much with the perception of momentum going into Super Tuesday.

So just what does Rick Santorum have to do to get back on track?

First, stop scaring voters with all the dial-back-the-clock social conservative talk.

Second, focus like a laser beam on the struggling Middle Class again.

Look, we all get that Rick Santorum is religious. Really religious. And that’s fine.

But when he starts spouting off on Sunday shows about how reading John F. Kennedy’s landmark Separation of Church and State speech makes him want to “throw up”—well, he starts to look a little crazy-eyed and irresponsible.

Likewise, when he talks about how President Obama sounds like a “snob” for wanting all American kids to have the opportunity of higher education—well, he sounds like an Onion headline parodying demagogues who prey on the stupid. It’s a pose that isn’t helped by the fact that Santorum has two advanced degrees himself.

And when he starts talking like he wants to severely restrict women’s access to some forms of birth control, it’s so long, small government—as libertarian-minded and independent women start running for the hills.

The takeaway? When you get the impulse to say any crazy thing that pops into your head, stop. You’re no longer preaching to the choir—you’re speaking to the nation. Instead, talk about the economy, stupid.

Rick Santorum deserves a lot of credit for talking about the forgotten middle class in debates before it was cool, and before he got any traction. He projected empathy and understanding when other candidates seemed uncomfortable talking about poverty. And he didn’t just talk a good game—he proposed policies that might help solve the problem, like a controversial big idea to eliminate corporate income taxes on manufacturing plants here in the USA.

This approach also just happens to contrast perfectly with the image of Mitt Romney as Mr. 1 Percent, an image Republicans have done at least as much as Democrats to foster—especially Mitt’s own slips. My favorite from last week was Romney relating to folks at the Daytona 500 by saying “I have some great friends that are NASCAR team owners.”

When Pittsburgh’s Rick Santorum talks about the middle-class squeeze, he knows what he’s talking about. The Allegheny region—including the eastern part of Super Tuesday’s battleground Ohio—has been hard-hit by the decades-long Rust Belt recession. It’s no coincidence that Michigan exit polls showed Santorum winning voters who make under $100,000 a year, while Romney won wealthier voters. By talking about the economy and proposing solutions, Santorum can leverage his best political asset when and where it matters most.

When you feel the impulse to say whatever crazy thing that pops into your head, stop.

A week is a long time in politics. Santorum is holding a lead in several of the Super Tuesday states, including Ohio, Tennessee, and Oklahoma. But only polls taken in the last two days seem to reveal the true trend for Election Day. Romney needs to show that he can post convincing wins in conservative states in the South and Midwest, and he’ll go as negative as he needs to win.

Santorum has made that job easier by slips of the lip that don’t just play to the base, but play to the fringe. Romney’s core argument is electability and Santorum’s core argument is relate-ability. He doesn’t do himself any favors in this arena when he looks like an agitated right-wing rube. Playing Santorum’s Iowa election-night speech on a loop in local markets might help—that’s where he set the right, hopeful tone that can appeal to the base and beyond.

But ultimately, Santorum is his own worst enemy. His record is far more socially conservative than it is fiscally conservative. When he talks about Satan, it is completely sincere. This may warm the cockles of some hearts, but it’s going to have a tough time translating to the wider audience that votes in a 21st Century general election.

Super Tuesday is Santorum’s great chance. The results will be pivotal, if not determinative. After those 10 states vote in five days, we’ll be able to do the math and see if Romney is on a clear path to winning the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination before the convention. Santorum needs to be more disciplined in focusing his message on the middle class to win the night, while also winning the right.