Rick Santorum’s improbable long game

He started out as the saddest, loneliest GOP candidate. Is he about to finish as the “next in line” guy?

Topics: Opening Shot, Rick Santorum,

Rick Santorum’s improbable long game (Credit: AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The odds of Rick Santorum actually winning the Republican presidential nomination this year are vanishingly slim. But even in defeat, he’s certain to emerge from the process with his national profile and political prospects significantly enhanced.

That’s saying something when you consider that Santorum came to this race from a state of voter-imposed political exile, the loser – the 18-point loser – of a 2006 Senate race in Pennsylvania. Abject boredom, it appeared, was the motivating factor for his national campaign, and the stench of failure clung to him as he labored fruitlessly day after day last year. For the longest time, it seemed he was destined to be the only 2012 GOP candidate not to enjoy a surge in the polls, even a fleeting one.

But now he’s won primaries in Tennessee and Oklahoma, caucuses in Iowa, Colorado, Minnesota and North Dakota and a (not entirely inconsequential) beauty contest in Missouri. And he’s probably not done, with a bundle of very winnable states on the horizon. It’s almost certain that the primary season will end with Santorum winning the second-most votes, the second-most states and the second-most delegates.

By every conventional metric, in other words, he’ll be the second-place guy – and the funny thing about second-place guys in modern GOP nominating contests is that they tend to become the first-place guy the next time there’s an open nomination. Entering this cycle, the pattern had held for four of the five most recent open contest runners-up, and a Romney victory this year will make it five out of six.

Of course, the idea of Santorum as the 2016 Republican front-runner doesn’t quite seem right. His success this year feels almost entirely accidental. He couldn’t gain an inch of traction anywhere until the week before the Iowa caucuses, when that state’s Anyone But Mitt crowd settled on him as the least objectionable vehicle for their cause. And even though he ended up essentially tying Romney on caucus night (and being declared the winner weeks later), Santorum faded back to obscurity in the next four GOP contests, allowing Newt Gingrich – Newt Gingrich! – to eclipse him. Only when Gingrich was killed off for the second time and the Anyone But Mitts were again out of options did Santorum reemerge.

So his success says very little about his strengths as a candidate. It’s only because of a peculiar mix of circumstances – a restive GOP base in search of “purity” it can’t seem to define and a front-runner whose moderate past, Northern roots and Mormon faith make him a uniquely poor fit for a significant chunk of that base – that there’s been an opening for Santorum to exploit. And he’s only been able to exploit that opening because he could clear a comically low competence threshold that literally every other non-Romney candidate couldn’t. Despite his victories, his campaign still reeks of amateurism, missing state ballots, failing to file delegate slates, and lacking even a national headquarters.

Santorum is just not in the same class as the other modern Republicans who’ve gone from next-in-line to nominee:

Ronald Reagan: Back when there was a genuine left-right divide in the GOP, he challenged Gerald Ford in the 1976 primaries and nearly knocked him off. That cemented Reagan as the right’s undisputed leader and allowed him to spend the next four years seeking to expand that base. In that same span, the party’s conservative wing grew further and the moderate/liberal side contracted, a trend that made Reagan an even more formidable front-runner when he launched his 1980 bid.

George H.W. Bush: In a way, Bush’s example is proof that literal next-in-line status can be overrated. He finished second to Reagan in the ’80 primaries, but he did so running to the left – supporting abortion rights and the ERA, ridiculing supply-side economics, and rallying the party’s dying Rockefeller wing. Eight years later, when Reagan’s second term ended and the GOP nomination was again open, the brand of Republicanism Bush championed in ’80 was obsolete. It was only because he made it onto the GOP ticket as Reagan’s V.P. that Bush was able to reinvent himself as a true believer conservative in the ‘80s, win over skeptical leaders on the right, and ride his ties to Reagan to the 1988 nomination, and the presidency. For Bush, finishing second was a springboard to the nomination in an indirect way: He performed well enough that Reagan felt he had to offer him the No. 2 slot for the sake of party unity.

Bob Dole: Dole gave Bush a scare in ’88, crushing him in Iowa (where Bush also finished behind Pat Robertson) and nearly following it up in New Hampshire a week later. But from that point on, Bush cruised, and when the race was over Dole returned to his day job as the Senate’s GOP leader – which made him the top Republican in national politics when Bush was voted out of the White House four years later. Thanks to the punch-line status of Bush’s vice president, Dan Quayle, and the lack of interest by the most popular Republican in America, Colin Powell, Dole entered the 1996 GOP race as by far the best-known candidate. By that point, he’d run once for vice president (with Ford in ’76), twice for president (in ’80 and ’88) and been the top Senate Republican for a dozen years – and he still almost blew it, barely surviving in Iowa and losing New Hampshire. What saved Dole was the identity of his chief challenger, Pat Buchanan, whose trade and foreign policy views put him far outside the party’s mainstream and whose history of inflammatory rhetoric unnerved the GOP’s opinion-shaping class.

John McCain: McCain’s second-place finish in 2000 made him a national political rock star, but it also came with a giant asterisk: Because so much of his support had come from independents and Democrats – who delighted in watching McCain thumb his nose at George W. Bush and his army of establishment Republican backers – there was reason to doubt he’d be the GOP’s choice in 2008. But after flirting in the early part of Bush’s presidency with bolting the party and becoming an independent (or even a Democrat), McCain embraced Bush and sought peace with the same forces he’d decried in ’00. The process was hardly clean, and it’s doubtful he would have succeeded if the McCain skeptics on the right hadn’t been split between Romney and Mike Huckabee, but McCain did come to the race with an obvious base of support and some real strengths.

Romney: He finished second in total votes and second in states won against McCain, although he did nab a few less delegates than Huckabee – probably because Huckabee stayed in the race longer. Romney’s path, you may have noticed, has been as rocky as McCain’s, probably more so. After all, he’s losing states to Rick Santorum. Still, Romney has been able to put together what is by far the most serious campaign organization on the GOP side, allowing him to maximize his delegate take and neutralize every serious threat that’s emerged.

At this point, Santorum just wouldn’t bring the kind of strengths to a ’16 race that these men brought to their follow-up bids. At the same time, though, he’s in a different class than Buchanan, the one modern second-place finisher who didn’t go on to win the nomination. Unlike Buchanan, Santorum’s platform is mainstream by his party’s standards, and he’d be a more naturally acceptable nominee. Indeed, his success in the current race is a result of key elements of the GOP base finding him a more acceptable choice than Romney. He is not rallying outsiders to wage war on the GOP.

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Still, he does have Buchanan’s penchant for the kind of needlessly inflammatory rhetoric that unnerves party elites. Opinion-shaping Republicans will have too many other options in the next nomination fight to view Santorum as their default candidate. And he won’t come to that race with the sort of built-in army of supporters and donors that would compel party elites to back him.

So what can Santorum cash in his new stature for? In the ideal scenario for him, he’ll get extremely lucky and Romney, for whatever reason, will invite him onto this year’s ticket. Running on the losing ticket might not boost him that much (Dole’s ’80 campaign, launched after his ’76 V.P. bid, comes to mind here), but if he and Romney were to win, the equation would change for Santorum, and he’d be in position to follow the Bush 41 model. But that scenario, for many, many reasons, is a long shot.

Alternately, he could return to Pennsylvania and pursue statewide office there again – but now not as a defeated ex-senator making a desperate comeback bid but instead as a former presidential candidate with a national profile. The problem here, though, is that there’s not an obvious opening on the horizon, with Republican Gov. Tom Corbett presumably seeking reelection in 2014 and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey presumably doing the same in 2016. At this point, Santorum would probably have to wait until 2018 (at least), when Democrat Bob Casey’s Senate seat will be up (assuming Casey wins this year).

So maybe running for president again is Santorum’s best option. He’d at least be taken more seriously in the formative stages of the next campaign than he was in this one, even if he’d still be a long shot for the nomination. But it would beat the mundane life of an ex-senator that Santorum was fleeing when he entered the ’12 race. As one of his old law partners told the New Republic recently, “Over the years, I’ve never seen him so happy as when he’s on a campaign.”

Steve Kornacki
Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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