Missed Chance

03.07.12

Rick Santorum’s Blue-Collar Fumble

With his working-class roots as the perfect foil to Romney’s rich-guy swagger, Santorum should have had an easier time in Ohio—but he just couldn’t resist picking fights over social issues. Andrew Romano reports from the campaign trail.

As a student at Butler Senior High School in western Pennsylvania, the young Rick Santorum wasn’t particularly athletic; he played JV basketball and managed the baseball team. But he was well-known among the jocks for two distinctive attributes: his brash, argumentative demeanor, and the incorrigible cowlick of black hair that always seemed to protrude from the back of his head. Together, they earned him a rather evocative locker-room nickname:

“Rooster.”

The sobriquet, sadly, is no longer in use; it was retired sometime after Santorum’s stint as a beer-chugging frat boy at Penn State and before his arrival at Pittsburgh’s Kirkpatrick & Lockhart law firm. But if you’re trying to figure out why this cycle’s so-called working-class candidate couldn’t beat Mitt “Richie Rich” Romney in Ohio on Tuesday, despite weeks of polling and punditry that suggested the blue-collar Buckeye State was his to lose, then “Rooster” is a pretty good place to start.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that Santorum’s showing in Ohio was weak. He finished a mere 12,000 votes behind Romney, who outspent him 4 to 1. But it wasn’t nearly as strong, I’d argue, as it could have been. By far the biggest component of Santorum’s support was evangelical voters, who represented 46 percent of the electorate and preferred him over Romney by 16 percentage points. His margins among blue-collar Ohioans were puny in comparison: three points among voters who didn’t go to college; three points among voters making less than $50,000 a year. If Santorum had just attracted a few thousand more working-class votes, he would have won the primary.

So why didn’t he? I blame Rooster. I was reminded of Santorum’s old nickname as I watched him speak last Friday evening at the Lake County Republican Party’s annual Lincoln Day Dinner in Willoughby, Ohio, about 20 minutes northeast of downtown Cleveland. After Santorum’s momentum-sapping loss in Michigan three days earlier—and the subsequent flood of analysis, almost all of which said he’d blown a double-digit lead in the Great Lakes State by obsessing over contraception, Satan, and collegiate snobbery instead of turning on his (alleged) blue-collar charm—I expected to find a transformed candidate on stage at the American Croatian Lodge in Willoughby.

The Santorum campaign had encouraged the expectation. At his “victory” party in Grand Rapids the previous Tuesday, Santorum put new emphasis on his blue-collar background, explaining how his mother, a nurse, taught him “a lot of things about how to balance work and family, and doing it well, and doing it with a big heart and commitment”—a shift that was intended, his deputies told reporters, to play up the contrast between Santorum (“he understands people like you”) and Romney (“he fires people like you”) heading into neighboring Ohio.

Santorum simply has more fun, and feels more himself, when he’s taking the bait, being pugnacious, and refusing to back down.

And yet, by the time I caught up with Santorum, less than 72 hours later, it was abundantly clear that the transformation hadn’t quite taken. On the plus side, he was no longer blabbering on about how John F. Kennedy’s 1960 “Catholic Speech” made him want to “throw up”; at one point, in fact, I heard the former senator stop himself from saying the word “contraception” and insist, instead, that he wasn’t “against ... certain health care being provided to you.”

But Santorum’s newfound message discipline wasn’t particularly deep, nor did it inspire him to address working-class issues at greater length, or with greater passion, than he did in, say, Iowa, way back in December. His speech in Willoughby, like the others I heard in Lima and Chillicothe, was all about Obama’s Big-Government Crusade to Destroy Your God-Given Freedom and How Only Faith and Family Can Stop Him. Sure, Santorum mentioned his steel-town background and his unorthodox plan to zero out the corporate tax on manufacturers. But they sounded less like cornerstone beliefs than boxes to be checked, probably because they were always surrounded by 30 or 40 minutes of material like this:

“Why don't we talk about what works? Why don't we encourage it in our schools? Why don't we encourage it in our culture? Why are we damning people? ... We'll talk about childhood obesity until the cows come home. But we won't talk about one of the great underlying causes of childhood obesity, which is the instability of the community, the neighborhood, and the family."

Or:

“This is about what kind of country you’re going to hand off to the next generation. The country under Obama is about dependency. Nearly half of the people in America are dependent on the federal government. Once every American is dependent, the government has you, and the president is pulling the strings.”

Or:

“Go to the areas of Cleveland where you don't see any dads. What do you see? Do you see freedom? Do you see opportunity? Do you see jobs? Do you see police? Do you see government? Everywhere. That's the reality.”

And so on. The problem here, I think, is that it’s hard for a Rooster to change his feathers, at least at this point in his career. Back in Pennsylvania, Santorum “often came up with the topics of his speeches on the way to the venue” and was widely known as a politician “who doesn't take direction very well." He prefers to run on instinct, to follow his interests, to speak extemporaneously. “That's just sort of the way my life is,” he told Philadelphia magazine in 1995. “I don't really sit down and plan anything. It just sort of happens.” As a result, Santorum inevitably winds up slipping into Rooster mode on the trail, regardless of his game plan; he simply has more fun, and feels more himself, when he’s taking the bait, being pugnacious, and refusing to back down. “You know what?” he told voters in Willoughby, referring to his snob remarks. “I don't give prepared talking-point speeches written by other people. I got a little passionate there and I used a harsher word than I normally would.”

A Republican leader in Pennsylvania put it best in an interview with Reuters: “Rick [tends to] thro[w] the pass you don't need to throw, to use a football analogy.” Look at it from Santorum’s perspective. Audiences always applaud when he rails against out-of-wedlock childbirth. Christian activists have always powered his campaigns. His blue-collar record is complicated. As a well-compensated lawyer and lobbyist with three advanced degrees, he hasn’t personally been in touch with working-class concerns since childhood, when his family was “probably economically a little below the middle,” according to a friend. And his operation is far too disorganized to enforce any kind of message discipline. So he keeps throwing the passes he’s most passionate about, consequences be damned. “Santorum hasn’t capitalized on his potential,” says Reihan Salam, co-author of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream. “He tries to tell a working-class story, but he doesn’t always do it deftly because there’s clearly this intensity gap for him in terms of moral or cultural issues versus economic issues.”

Hence the narrow back-to-back losses to Romney in Ohio and Michigan. The trouble with Santorum’s “family is better than government” message isn’t that it’s weak, per se. It’s that it’s designed to appeal to a voting bloc that Santorum has already won over: Obama-hating, evangelical, and/or hard-right Tea Party types. After the senator’s speech in Willoughby, I eavesdropped on two men doing postgame analysis in the restroom of the American Croatian Lodge. “I’m telling you,” one guy said. “That was the first time since Reagan that I’ve heard a politician speak with passion. We need someone to give this country some moral direction again.”

“We need someone to call a spade a shovel,” said the second guy, referring to Obama.

“We need someone to call a spade a spade!” the first guy countered.

“Well, that too.”

“But that would offend the liberals, wouldn’t it? We’re all sensitive Americans now.”

“Bullshit.”

“Don’t want to piss off the bleeding hearts in New York City.”

“I fucking do.”

“Damn right.”

You get the idea. In Ohio, Santorum won “very conservative” voters, which is surely how these gentlemen would describe themselves, by 18 percentage points, but lost “somewhat conservative” and “moderate or liberal” voters—both larger groups—by 6 points and 14 points, respectively. In a head-to-head matchup with Romney, Santorum will win the right wingers every time. What he needs—what would boost his vote totals beyond the 37 percent he won in Ohio or the 38 percent he won in Michigan—is more support among voters who say the economy is their biggest concern. They represented 54 percent of the electorate in Ohio, and they preferred Romney 41 percent to 33 percent. Given his roots—and given Romney’s patrician profile—Santorum is well positioned to improve his performance in what a recent Pew report calls the “Disaffected” demographic whose “hostility to big government coexists with anxieties about corporate power.” But he needs to sound less like a cultural conservative and more like an economic populist to do it.

On stage Tuesday night in Steubenville, Ohio, Santorum seemed, yet again, to find his blue-collar voice. “We need a fighter and someone who learned what America was about by growing up in communities like this,” he said. “Understanding how America, neighborhoods, and families work and believing in them. Understanding they are under a lot of stress and strain right now, mostly put on them by the government. But understanding that that is the greatness of this country.”

Will it last? If what I saw in Ohio is any indication, probably not. Which is too bad for Santorum, because there are a lot of voters out there like Ted Foster—not only in the Republican primary, but also in the broader electorate as well. Foster, 56, spent 20 years working as a quality-assurance manager for a local manufacturer that made parts for appliances and automobiles. “What we made was zinc and aluminum die castings,” he told me last Friday in Lima, Ohio. “Used be on cars you’d have the metal chrome everywhere. Then it turned over to plastic.” After a few business trips to Mexico, Foster realized that his job was in danger—‘They would do something on an assembly and ship the part back to Louisville, Ky., because General Electric paid them absolutely nothing”—so he quit and applied for a position at the Department of Transportation, where he still works today.

Unlike many Lima Republicans, Foster isn’t completely hostile to Washington—“I’m one of those terrible government employees,” he quipped—but he isn’t a Democrat, either. More like a “Disaffected.” “I spend most of my time looking at labels, trying to buy tools,” he told me. “If I can spend a little more money for American-made, I will. I get so sick of seeing stuff made in China. I remember when I got out of high school, this place was full of big factories and good-paying factory jobs. You could just pick and choose. They’re gone now. Everything’s just moved overseas.”

I asked Foster if he was planning to vote for Santorum on Tuesday. “I’m leaning in that direction,” he said. “I think he’s a little more in line and in touch with me and the real world than Romney would be. Lives a closer lifestyle to what I have. Knows what it’s like to struggle and pay the bills. That type of stuff.”

To compete with Romney in the weeks (and maybe months) ahead, Santorum will need all the Ted Fosters he can get. The question now is whether the Rooster can choose his cockfights more wisely—or whether it’s already too late for his wake-up call.