How Rick Santorum Could Cost Romney the Presidency

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THE STUMP JANUARY 4, 2012

How Rick Santorum Could Cost Romney the Presidency

Last night we re-learned an important lesson from 2008: In Iowa, the Republican candidate with momentum way exceeds his final poll numbers; the Republican candidate named Mitt Romney ... doesn’t. In 2008, Mike Huckabee exceeded his final polling average by about five points; Romney actually dropped off by about a point-and-a-half. This time out, Rick Santorum exceeded his final polling average by almost ten points. Romney was up about two-and-a-half. 

In both cases, the explanation was pretty obvious: Romney was well known heading into caucus night and not much loved. People who hadn’t decided to support him beforehand were unlikely to do it on the spot. By contrast, Santorum was positioned to scoop up anyone who showed up thinking they’d support Perry or Gingrich or Bachmann then decided they’d like to back someone who had a chance of winning. Thus it was that Santorum ended up crashing Romney’s coronation. 

For much of 2011, Romney seemed to understand this dilemma. He scrupulously avoided competing in Iowa—or, at least, being seen as competing in Iowa. Then, a few weeks out from the caucuses, he sensed an opportunity and went all-in. This was a strategic mistake. Without the shift, Romney probably wouldn’t have done appreciably worse. In fact, according to the caucus entrance poll, Romney won 28 percent of the voters who made up their minds before December—when he officially wasn’t contesting Iowa—but only 23 percent who made up their minds afterwards, the period when he actively competed. 

For Romney, the upside of neglecting Iowa is that it would have minimized Santorum’s good showing there. The press would have proclaimed it a nice but mostly meaningless accomplishment to win a contest missing its frontrunner. Romney could have then gone about his business of rolling up a 25-point victory in New Hampshire. 

Now, the press will dwell on Romney’s vulnerability. We’ll point out that, despite his best efforts, three-quarters of the Republican primary electorate still won’t give him the time of day. Though he’ll almost certainly still win New Hampshire, the margin will be smaller than it otherwise would have been, perhaps much smaller. Santorum may well come out of New Hampshire with more momentum than Romney, since the bar there is so low for him, and since the boost he gets going in will be much bigger after fighting Romney to a draw in Iowa. That creates real danger for Romney as the two men head into South Carolina, a state where social conservatives predominate and Mormons struggle. 

Can Santorum ultimately deny Romney the nomination? Probably not. As many others have pointed out, he just doesn’t have the resources and organization to go stride-for-stride with Romney over the long-haul. He also has a record of outlandish rhetoric and K-Street sleaze that will surely be picked over in the coming weeks. But even if Santorum can’t stop Romney from becoming the Republican nominee, he can probably stop him from becoming president.  He can do this by prolonging the primary contest by a month or two and deepening the ambivalence toward Romney within the GOP. In the coming weeks, Republican voters will be hearing a lot more about Romney’s intellectual paternity of “Obamacare” and his serial flip-flopping on social issues. 

Improbably, Santorum’s secret weapon in this effort will be Newt Gingrich. Newt made his contempt for Romney glaringly obvious in his concession speech last night, suggesting that bloodying the former Massachusetts governor more than suffices as his rationale for staying in the race. Now Gingrich gives Santorum the great luxury of a Romney hit man for which Santorum can’t be held responsible. (It goes to show that if you’re going to shoot at an unserious candidate, as Romney shot at Newt in Iowa, you’d better kill him.) 

For Santorum, the question is whether he’s savvy enough to capitalize on his post-Iowa opportunities. Can he stay sunny and positive while Newt (and, in New Hampshire, Jon Huntsman) rough Romney up? Or will he fall into the shrillness that sometimes gets the better of him, as when he criticized Romney on health care during last year’s debates? Can he appeal to blue-collar Catholics in New Hampshire who might be just as concerned about the loss of manufacturing jobs as they are about abortion? Can he fuse together Tea Partiers and social conservatives? 

The early indications from Santorum’s victory speech last night were encouraging in this respect. Santorum mostly struck an optimistic posture and only made oblique mentions of Romney. He explicitly nodded at blue-collar workers and the decline of manufacturing, but still stressed his credentials as a tax-cutter and government-capper. He thanked his Creator profusely. 

None of this will much matter to the chances of a Santorum presidency, the prospects for which are basically nil outside the former senator’s head. But it could matter quite a bit to the future of an Obama presidency. As one Obama consultant emailed me last night, “How bout Rick!?” The difference between a primary campaign that lasts two weeks and one that lasts two months could make all the difference in the world for Barack Obama. And Rick Santorum now has the power to make it happen. 

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posted in: the stump, economy, iowa, new hampshire, mike huckabee, mitt romney, rick santorum

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