Rick Santorum’s V.P. leverage

The last GOP nominee to face such deep and lingering intraparty resistance was – believe it or not – Ronald Reagan

Topics: 2012 Elections, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, ,

Rick Santorum’s V.P. leverage Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in 1980

If Rick Santorum is a little frustrated these days, it’s hard to blame him. On Saturday, he scored a resounding primary victory, demolishing Mitt Romney in Louisiana, the 11th state to side with the former Pennsylvania senator so far. The prospects for similarly lopsided Santorum wins throughout the spring are good, but his own party’s leaders and the political world in general just don’t seem to care.

“Unless something unusual happens, unless Romney steps on a land mine, he looks like he’s going to be the nominee,” Haley Barbour, the former Mississippi governor and RNC chairman, said on Sunday. That pronouncement came a few days after Jeb Bush came out for Romney and Jim DeMint essentially did the same, and it was followed today by endorsements of Romney from Kevin McCarthy, the No. 3 Republican in the House, and Utah Sen. Mike Lee, a Tea Party icon. According to Politico’s Jonathan Martin, the endorsement floodgates may really open if Romney prevails in next week’s Wisconsin primary.

In a way, the growing consensus that the GOP race is over and that Santorum has been reduced to an irritant’s role makes sense. Basic voting patterns that are apparently immune to momentum have seemingly taken over, guaranteeing Romney a floor of support that is very, very likely to push him past the magic 1,144-delegate number by the end of the primary season. And, obviously, it’s in the interest of Republican Party leaders to unite their party around a nominee as soon as possible.

But Santorum is an odd sort of doomed candidate because — as he demonstrated over the weekend — he’s still capable of winning primaries, often by big margins. A significant chunk of the Republican base is still eager to vote for someone, anyone other than Romney, and it’s entirely possible that Santorum will end up winning more than 20 states. There’s also still a theoretical possibility that Romney will fall short of 1,144 during the primary season, which would create a theoretical opportunity for Santorum to use the pre-convention months this summer to win the nomination. This makes him different than previous candidates who were accused of hanging around too long. Pat Buchanan in 1996, Jerry Brown in 1992, and Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson in 1988 were being drubbed in primary after primary when the political world decided to ignore their campaigns and treat the process as finished. They weren’t still racking up victories.

If there’s a parallel for what Santorum is now facing, it can be found in George H.W. Bush’s 1980 campaign. At roughly this same point in the process, Bush had around 200 delegates, far behind Ronald Reagan, who had nearly 600 – with 998 needed to win the nomination. Except for John Anderson, who left the race to run as an independent, all of the Republican candidates who’d dropped out – Bob Dole, Howard Baker, Phil Crane and John Connally – had thrown support to Reagan, and key party leaders were jumping on board too. There were loud calls for Bush to quit, and warnings that his lingering presence would damage Reagan’s chances of knocking off Jimmy Carter in the fall. The Reagan campaign itself adopted a strategy of ignoring its last remaining rival.

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But Bush, who came to the race with scant name recognition and support only to break through with a surprise Iowa victory, remained viable in key state primaries. On April 22, he beat Reagan in Pennsylvania by 8 points. Ten days later, he nearly won in Texas, which had been one of Reagan’s strongest states in 1976. And on May  20, he scored an absolute landslide in Michigan, annihilating Reagan by 25 points.

Bush, who campaigned as a supporter of abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment and a critic of Reagan’s supply-side economic agenda, was running from the left, but he was playing the same basic role that Santorum now is – the vehicle for the unusually large number of Republicans who really, really didn’t want to support the front-runner.

Today, the holdouts that Santorum is appealing to are mainly religious conservatives in the South and in rural areas across the country. Those voters were part of Reagan’s base in ’80. But the GOP back then still had a Rockefeller wing and was still a major force in the Northeast and industrial states, and among these Republicans Reagan was seen as an extreme ideologue who would have trouble winning in the fall.

Like Santorum, it took Bush a long time to get the one-on-one race he’d always wanted; if Baker and Anderson had dropped out sooner, he probably would have won more states. But even as his inevitability built, Reagan continued to encounter stiff resistance from moderate and liberal Republicans. As late as May, a national poll of Republican voters put Reagan only 8 points ahead of Bush.

Two factors ultimately pushed Bush out of the race. One was practical: On the night of his big Michigan victory, several news organizations announced that Reagan had nonetheless cleared the 998-delegate mark. This was a matter of dispute; then as now, there was no uniform delegate tally and serious disagreement over how to account for them. Plus, Bush’s campaign was insisting that hundreds of delegates who’d been pledged to Reagan during the primaries were actually free agents. The Bush strategy was to demonstrate strength in the late primaries, then to pressure these delegates into backing him. But the loud declarations from major news outlets that the race was over rained on Bush’s Michigan parade and dried up his fundraising overnight. Within days, he was out of the race.

Of course, Bush had another incentive not to press on any further. The depths of intraparty Reagan resistance that his campaign had revealed increased the pressure on Reagan to choose a moderate as his running mate. And Bush, by virtue of his surprisingly strong primary season showing, would be a logical choice for the role. In the days before dropping out, Bush had called himself “unequivocally opposed” to serving as Reagan’s No. 2. But after bowing out, he stopped issuing denials, and when Reagan’s effort to entice the preeminent GOP moderate, former President Gerald Ford, onto his ticket failed, Bush became the choice.

Santorum’s candidacy has highlighted similar intraparty resistance to Romney, so the same basic logic that landed Bush on the ticket 32 years ago could apply to him. It’s true that the Republicans who’ve been lining up behind Santorum seem mainly motivated not by affection for him but by opposition to Romney, but this was also the case for Bush in his race against Reagan. It’s also true that Santorum is stridently attacking Romney right now, but, again, Bush did the same thing to Reagan well into the spring of 1980 (when, for instance, he accused Reagan of trying to turn the clock back to the 18th century).

Santorum’s odds of winning the nomination are not entirely nonexistent right now, but they are slim. His chances of procuring the vice presidency are probably much better. As the calls for his exit grow louder in the weeks ahead, he may do well to consider what listening to them did for the last GOP candidate in his situation.

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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