Today’s the day that former senator Rick Santorum lustily and frothily joins the ranks of the 2016 Republican presidential field. After finishing second to the Mitt Romney juggernaut in 2012, Santorum’s trying to make the jump from runner-up to presumptive nominee, in accordance with the (largely mythical) “next-in-line” theory of Republican presidential politics. His poll numbers are not what you’d call good. Nationally, he’s sharing the basement with hopeless also-rans like Carly Fiorina and Lindsey Graham. In Iowa, where he scraped out an impossibly narrow 2012 victory that propelled him into serious contention, he’s not doing much better. But he still has megadonor weirdo Foster Friess in his corner, ready to bankroll the Santorum surge, so he may as well give it a go.
The big question facing Santorum is an obvious one: how does he win? In 2012 he benefitted hugely from the overall weakness of the Republican field. He was able to capture some Tea Party support and appeal to conservatives who distrusted Romney simply by being the least criminally incompetent of the alternatives. Going into 2016, he doesn’t have that advantage. There’s still an establishment favorite that the conservative base hates, but unlike the last time around, the remainder of the 2016 field is not as heavily populated with hapless nincompoops. Regardless of what you think about Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Scott Walker, they’re much more politically deft than Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, and the 2012 version of Rick Perry.
He’s also facing stiff competition for the religious conservatives who formed his base of support in the last cycle. Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee are out on the stump promising to halt gay marriage and be warriors for “religious freedom,” even if it means defying the Supreme Court. Santorum’s already finding early-state evangelicals to be less receptive to his message than they were in 2012.
And then there’s the larger problem of Santorum’s long career in the public eye. He spent most of his tenure as a federal officeholder as a thoroughly unlikeable ideologue who happily allied himself with George W. Bush on all manner of unpopular and controversial issues. And while everyone talks about Jeb Bush’s “Iraq problem,” it’s no less an issue for Santorum, whose vocal advocacy for the war and the cause behind it sometimes took him to strange and embarrassing places.
Back in 2006, as he was trailing badly in his ill-fated Senate reelection bid, Santorum tried to shake up the race by holding a big press conference announcing that “we have found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.” He was referring to a cache of old, corroded, and unusable chemical munitions that we already knew existed. Not even the Bush White House was willing to claim that those munitions vindicated their apocalyptic pre-war allegations about Iraq’s supposed chemical weapons capabilities, but Santorum was ready to take a victory lap on behalf of all Iraq war supporters. It didn’t do him any good – he lost his seat that November by 18 points.
Santorum is still clinging to the ridiculous idea that pre-war WMD claims have been proven true, to the point that he accuses the Bush administration of engineering a cover-up to hide the evidence of how right they were about Iraq. None of that, however, prevented him from jumping on the Jeb Bush pig pile earlier this month when the former president’s brother struggled with questions over whether he’d have authorized the Iraq invasion. “I don’t know how that was a hard question,” Santorum said. “The answer is pretty clear. The information was not correct and, while there was some things that were true, I don’t think nearly the weight to require us to go to war.”
Ultimately, the main factor holding back Rick Santorum is the fact that he’s Rick Santorum. To give himself a toehold in the 2016 race, Santorum is adopting a new and different persona, that of the populist champion of the blue-collar working man. Santorum has to reinvent himself because it doesn’t seem like anyone actually likes him except as an alternative to someone they hate even more. As Harry Enten points out, Santorum doesn’t seem to have “carried over any goodwill from his 2012 bid,” and “his lack of appeal across the party and lack of electability have resulted in little support from the party actors.” Now that conservatives have a glut of at least semi-credible anti-establishment candidates to choose from, they just don’t need Rick anymore.