Oval Office Thunderdome: Santorum’s Tough Road

Former Pennsylvania Senator and current hard-right ideologue Rick Santorum will be stopping in Des Moines and Dubuque, Iowa, tomorrow to deliver a pair of speeches to conservative audiences. Iowa being what it is in the presidential nominating process, Santorum appears to have designs on the Republican nomination in 2012, something he and his staffers have only meekly denied. The problem for Rick Santorum is that, despite the GOP’s tendency towards embracing figures as far to the right as he is, capturing the nomination is far easier for candidates considered to be moderates.

In only four of the 15 presidential elections dating back to 1952 has the Republican candidate represented the far right of the party (George W. Bush in 2004, though not in 2000, when he ran in the primaries as a compassionate conservative; Ronald Reagan in 1984 and 1980; and Barry Goldwater in 1964). A look at the primary victory of John McCain in 2008 shows why.

By the time of the first primaries and caucuses in 2008, the Republican field consisted of five candidates with potential to capture the nomination. These were Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, and McCain. By the end of January, Giuliani and Thompson were out after lackluster showings in the early contests. The denouement for the three remaining contenders came on Super Tuesday, February 5th, when 21 states held Republican nominating contests. Up to then, the race had been fairly even, although McCain was beginning to pull away from Mitt Romney, and Huckabee had only one victory, in the Iowa caucuses, under his belt.

As the day approached, it looked as if Super Tuesday would be the last gasp of Huckabee’s dying campaign, and this proved true. Not very many people predicted that he would also take Romney down with him, and effectively hand the nomination to McCain with nine months to go before the general election.

Many conservative states were scheduled to hold their contests on Super Tuesday. Among these were Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, Tennessee and West Virginia (a state whose strong ties to the Democratic Party are maintained through that party’s support of union labor). Huckabee had been the champion of the conservative base, the southern white evangelical wing of the party that had ruled national politics for the last eight years. But this power had been disproportionate to the true makeup of the party.

Alongside these conservative bastions, many more liberal-minded states went to the polls on Super Tuesday. Eight states that went for John Kerry in the 2004 general election voted on Super Tuesday, ready to apportion 462 delegates, while the 13 states that went for Bush in 2004 apportioned only 424 delegates. While a Republican candidate could ignore such states as California and New York in a general election against a Democratic opponent and still prevail, in the nominating contest, where moderate Republican voters from these states can effectively control the nomination, running an arch-conservative campaign can send even a popular candidate home for November, and that is what happened in 2008.

Huckabee appealed to southern conservative voters, and they awarded him five victories on Super Tuesday. McCain’s campaign, with it’s distinctive lack of divisive social rhetoric, appealed to Republican voters on the coasts, a constituency that has little voice in November, and he won most of those states, Massachusetts being the sole exception. The remaining states were a pretty even contest between McCain and Romney, and they split them. Because Romney had no appeal in the south, and could not compete with John McCain in the more populous states, he was done. If Huckabee had dropped out of the race before Super Tuesday, the states he won would likely have gone to Mitt Romney, McCain being even more persona non grata in the south than Romney, thereby giving Romney the boost he needed to stick around a while longer. But, because Huckabee stubbornly stayed in the race, his meaningless victories torpedoed Romney, and gave the nomination to McCain. In addition, if either Romney or McCain had been competing solely against Huckabee, they would have beaten him handily on Super Tuesday, as Huckabee just could not make inroads outside of the GOP base.

Huckabee, who ran on a conservative family values platform, showed that a strategy that embraces the base of the Republican Party has little more than regional appeal in the primaries, owing to the power of the moderate, yet more populous voters on the coasts. Even their stronghold in the west was broken after the last election cycle. Therein lies the danger for a candidate like Rick Santorum in 2012.

The Republican Party, more and more, feels like a regional party, representing the interests of the conservative south. That would be all well and good for personalities like Santorum and Huckabee if the party were to discontinue its primaries in the rest of the country. But, since states like New York, California, Illinois, and others still hold Republican primaries, a candidate must put together a campaign that addresses these voters’ concerns and beliefs. McCain showed quite clearly in 2008 that even abandoning the south can net a nomination. Only in rare circumstances are conditions right for an unapologetically conservative candidate to be successful in the primaries. The question for candidates like Santorum is, will 2012 be one of those years.

One thing that 1964, 1980, and 2000, key years for conservatism in presidential politics, all have in common is that there was widespread hatred in the Republican Party for a Democratic president. While I discounted the 2000 Bush campaign as sufficiently conservative earlier, it was driven by, and resulted in, the same disquietude in the GOP that led to the Goldwater and Reagan nominations.

The powerful rhetoric that fired these past campaigns could very well be present in 2012, if the noise of this past summer is any indication. President Obama has turned a very dispirited Republican base into a disturbing riot of bluster. While these people represent a minority in the party, one can wonder if they can propel someone like Sanotrum to the nomination. That is a legitimate question. But, if the silent majority of moderate Republicans holds true to its values in 2012, Santorum’s right-wing beliefs should be enough to prevent him from getting the nomination.

As of today, it looks like there will be at least two darlings of the right running alongside Santorum, should he decide to launch a campaign. These are Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin. None of these three currently appeal to any constituency outside of the Republican base. If all three manage to survive more than a few of the nominating contests, they may chew each other up among conservative voters, leaving moderates up for grabs, once again, in the more populous states. Even if only one makes it past the first few contests, they could face the same marginalization that plagued Huckabee in 2008.

A successful candidate in the GOP primaries can still be a conservative stalwart, but it is unlikely they will be able to succeed by flying their true flag before the general election. Santorum has a clear pedigree as being among the most extreme conservatives in American politics, and distancing himself from that record would be a challenge. Additionally, Santorum might be unwilling to do so, as he is proud of his record. How he feels about his chances in the primaries will have much to do with any decision he makes in this direction.

There will be a plethora of Republican candidates in 2012 whose records will not be so much of an issue, and their campaigns will have a much easier time attracting voters outside of the south.