Politics

08.12.14

Rick Santorum Is Kinda Coming Back for 2016

Four years after winning Iowa, the former senator is struggling to crack 6 percent in the 2016 GOP field—and maybe that’s right where he wants to be. But why is he bashing Reagan?

Among potential Republican presidential contenders in the 2016 Iowa caucuses, Rick Santorum is polling at around 6 percent. He’s mired behind more than a half-dozen candidates, some of whom have never campaigned the Hawkeye State, let alone won the first in the nation’s caucuses. But while the former Pennsylvania senator may not be in an ideal position for a presidential hopeful, he’s still light-years beyond where he was was at this time four years ago.

Indeed, Santorum didn’t start regularly cracking the 6 percent mark in polls until December 2011, just a month before the caucuses. That was after spending more than a year going back and forth across the state, where he boasted about visiting all 99 counties.

Still, being so behind in the polls for 2016, the former Pennsylvania senator was under particular pressure to deliver a strong performance at Saturday’s Family Leader Summit in Ames, Iowa. Bob Vander Plaats, the summit’s organizer and a leading Iowa social conservative, told The Daily Beast that as “the defending champion,” Santorum’s speech had some of “the highest stakes” of anyone who appeared. Vander Plaats said he thought the former Pennsylvania senator needed to remind attendees “why he won the Iowa caucuses and why he’s the one to champion their values and lead on those moving forward.” Instead, in a unique appeal, Santorum avoided hot button social issues almost totally and did something peculiar: He went after Ronald Reagan.

The night before, Santorum had tried to jump-start a return to the top of the polls in front of a crowd of about 125 at a picnic in Boone, Iowa, held by the county Republican Party. Santorum arrived long after the event had started, as an array of election officials and candidates took turns delivering stem winders to rally the party faithful who had gathered for a barbecue dinner in a city park on a pleasant August evening. He emerged from the parking lot with a grin on his face and stuck his hands in his pockets as he loped toward the event, just waiting for someone to recognize him. After so many months in 2011 of toiling in anonymity before crowds of five or 10 people, he was appearing effortlessly before scores of key Republican activists, including Gov. Terry Branstad and Rep. Steve King. But the event didn’t pause for Santorum. Instead, after about 30 or 45 seconds, two women helping to organize the picnic went up to him, welcoming him and taking him off to the side to meet and greet the other organizers.

Both Friday night in Boone and at the bigger Family Leader Summit on Saturday in Ames, Santorum gave what has become his standard stump speech, focusing on themes from his book Blue Collar Conservatives. But unlike some other GOP presidential hopefuls, he appeared more focused on using his book to promote his potential candidacy than the other way around.

Santorum’s spiel at both events seemed designed to differentiate him from other social conservative candidates. Whereas in 2012 Santorum’s competition for the Iowa GOP’s Christian base faded by caucus night—Newt Gingrich was brought down by attack ads and his colorful marital history, Rick Perry by Oxycontin, and Michele Bachmann by being herself—this year the former senator faces a far more crowded field that potentially includes Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, and Perry again. Jamie Johnson, a state central committee member and Santorum supporter in 2012, compared the situation to the Miami Dolphins backfield in the early 1970s, when the team had three great running backs but only two who could make it on the field at any one time.

At the Family Leader Summit on Saturday, many of those who backed him four years ago struggled to remember that they had done so.

On Saturday, Santorum came both to bury Reagan and to praise him. While the ardent conservative hailed the 40th president as one of the great leaders in American history, he noted that invoking his name today is as dated as praise of Wendell Willkie would have been when Reagan first ran for president. The former Pennsylvania senator offered his own vision of a GOP, one that appealed to blue-collar whites by promoting manufacturing and limiting immigration. The result was a populist appeal almost entirely different from that presented by any other candidate.

At times it seemed as if the only similarities between Cruz and Santorum were that neither liked President Obama and both were wearing cowboy boots. Cruz cracked jokes that had been borrowed from Jay Leno and boasted of all that conservatives had somehow achieved despite Obama. In contrast to Cruz’s pep rally, Santorum could sound as much like a political analyst as a candidate, as when he noted on Friday that this year’s Senate races were especially important because the GOP would almost inevitably lose seats in the upper chamber in 2016.

The key for Santorum is being able to rebuild the supporter infrastructure that he spent so much time laboring to create in 2012. Yet at the Family Leader Summit on Saturday, many of those who backed him four years ago struggled to remember that they had done so. Marianne Stewart of Cedar Falls needed repeated prodding to recall that she had caucused for Santorum. The memory came more quickly for her friend, Jan Mundt, formerly of Cedar Falls and now of Florida. Mundt had settled for Santorum after her first choice, Herman Cain, dropped out of the race.

Still, the memory of Santorum’s dogged campaign lingered. Steve Maher, a retired middle school civics teacher from the town of Muscatine, said he recalled Santorum visiting his town three times in 2011. Maher, who had stopped with his wife to watch the candidates at the summit on his way home from the State Fair, said he still ended up caucusing for Perry, though.

Yet for all these obstacles, Santorum is in the mix, which is remarkable for a politician who has been out of public office for eight years and whose last general election was in 2000. As he told reporters after his speech on Saturday, he plans on being back in Iowa often and encouraging congressional candidates, particularly in the more Democratic-leaning, eastern half of the state, to adopt his message. It will certainly be an uphill battle for Santorum, who has to gain roughly 25 percent in the polls over the next 18 months in the Hawkeye State. Then again, he only needed one month to accomplish the same feat in 2012.