Politics

04.04.12

Why Conservative GOP Voters Aren’t Giving Up on Rick Santorum

The more the Republican establishment pushes Mitt Romney, the more alienated the religious right becomes. Why the party’s hard-core base isn’t coming around.

In the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s triple-primary victory on Tuesday, most political experts say the race is slouching toward its inevitable conclusion. “After having won almost all delegates in Tuesday’s primaries, Mr. Romney has gone from very likely to win the majority of delegates to nearly certain to do so,” writes statistics guru Nate Silver.

Conservative Iowa radio host Steve Deace isn’t convinced. “In the minds of social conservatives, it’s not even close to over,” he says. “The real question is how committed someone like Rick Santorum is to fighting this out all the way to the end. If he’s committed to doing this on a personal level, there’s plenty of social conservatives that will ride him to the finish line.”

Indeed, despite the best efforts of the Republican establishment, many on the religious right are far from ready to accept Romney’s inevitability, or to coalesce behind him. They remain distrustful of his record on abortion, and unsure they can believe his campaign promises. And the harder party elites push Romney on them, the more alienated they become. “The biggest story that everyone in the media has missed this cycle is how frustrated and fed up the Republican Party base is with the Republican Party,” says Deace. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

He’s not the only one seeing it. “I am a Republican, but I just see that this election is the final battle in a long struggle between social conservatives and what we call the establishment of the party for control,” says Jason Jones, an antiabortion activist and film producer who previously served as grassroots director for Sam Brownback’s presidential campaign. “This is the last time you will ever see someone like Mitt Romney even in contention for the nomination.”

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List, agrees that there is profound grassroots discontent with party elites. “There is a lot of anger,” she says. “There is an enormous and palpable disconnect between Washington Republicans and conservative and independent voters on the ground. It’s just a chasm, and it doesn’t seem to get any better until Washington Republicans feel the pain.”

“There’s a tomorrow for him, and the likelihood of this not being resolved on the first ballot will remain a possibility—not a probability, but a thinking-person’s possibility.”

Santorum picked up on this mood in his defiant speech Tuesday night, decrying a “party establishment and aristocracy” determined to shove candidates “down our throats.” As long as his most passionate supporters see the race in these terms, they’re going to hold on to any hope, however slim, of thwarting the frontrunner.

Jones, for one, says he believes that Santorum could challenge the outcome of the Florida and Arizona primaries because both states broke GOP rules in making their contests winner-take-all. Ken Blackwell, former Ohio secretary of state and senior fellow at the Family Research Council, continues to hold out hope of a late Santorum surge that could force a brokered convention. If Santorum wins his home state of Pennsylvania, Blackwell says, “there’s a tomorrow for him, and the likelihood of this not being resolved on the first ballot will remain a possibility—not a probability, but a thinking-person’s possibility.”

The American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer is less sanguine than Blackwell, but equally eager to see Santorum stay in the race. “It’s like one of Romney’s aides said, it will take an act of God for Santorum to win the nomination,” he says. “The aide is probably right, but God has taken on bigger challenges than that.”

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Michelle Goldberg joins John Avlon on 'Campaign Chronicles.' The topic: why women don't like Mitt Romney

Should there be no deus ex machina, Fischer says, he doesn’t think abhorrence of Obama will be enough to juice socially conservative turnout for Romney in November. “There will be, if anything, a more severe enthusiasm gap than there was with John McCain,” he says.

On the surface, this sounds bizarre. After all, in 2008 many on the right backed Romney precisely because they saw him as the conservative alternative to McCain. How has he now become even less acceptable to true believers? “The environment is different,” insists Deace. “In 2008, all of us understood we were playing some form of defense, and people were maybe more willing to put up with somebody who had stabbed them in the back.” In the 2010 midterms, though, sweeping state and federal victories gave grassroots conservatives a taste of power. “Now,” asks Deace, “after more that 700 Democrats lost their jobs in the last election cycle, why aren’t we playing offense?”

Some of this anger, of course, will likely temper by the fall. In the last election there were predictions that furious female Hillary Clinton supporters would boycott the Obama campaign, but if any did, they were electorally insignificant. Still, enthusiasm matters. “In the past 18 months I’ve been to 47 states speaking,” says Jones. “I hear this all the time: ‘I don’t know if I’ll vote for Romney, and even if I vote for Romney, I won’t lift a finger for him.’ And that not lifting a finger is why he’s going to lose.”