Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Whither Santorum? And Other Florida Questions

Florida primary day. I wrote something over at Plum Line arguing that it matters whether Romney wins by a narrow margin or by a landslide because it will influence how he behaves over the next five weeks, through Super Tuesday.

The other question, I suppose, is whether this is the end of the line for Rick Santorum. I think so, although as usual I'll remind everyone not to trust immediate candidate reactions. After South Carolina, I thought that it made sense for Santorum to stay in for a week because of the possibility of a third-candidate effect: I thought that it was possible that with Mitt and Newt attacking each other full force, it was possible that Santorum might benefit even if he didn't have the money to run much of a campaign of his own. It appears that it didn't pan out, and I can't see any point in Santorum continuing on.

So why did Santorum fizzle after Iowa? That he did well there was, I still think, somewhat of a low-probability fluke. But once he emerged as a potentially viable conservative opponent to Romney, why didn't he do better? I guess I have four theories I can think of. One is that Iowa is no longer very important. Or, more likely: that Iowa has produced a sufficiently long string of social conservative surprises (Pat Robertson, Mike Huckabee) that the press heavily discounts any social conservative who does well there. That's silly; Iowa is not, in fact, a social conservative outlier within the GOP. But it might be true anyway. The second theory is a press bias in favor of Newt Gingrich. He's easy to write about, and many members of the elite press have always been easy marks for the snake oil that he peddles. So instead of writing him off after his lousy finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, the press continued to treat him as a top-tier candidate, thus taking time away from Santorum. So I have two press-centric theories, and I'll add one voter theory: Santorum doesn't seem to do resentment particularly well; the best he can manage is a sort of whine, such as when he wasn't being called on enough in early debates.

And then there's theory four, which is party-based. It appeared, through Iowa, that party actors were willing to accept Romney but were not sold, which meant there was room for a non-Romney to emerge. It's certainly possible, however, that either party actors don't much like Santorum for whatever reason -- or, more likely, that they really were a lot happier with the Mittster than they let on. If that's the case, the nomination was probably a done deal well before Iowa, even though on the surface (compared to, say, 2000 in both parties) there seemed to be reason for uncertainty.

I have no idea which, if any, of those theories explains it, but I do think it needs a bit of explaining.

8 comments:

  1. Not that complicated. He's a lightweight who spent the most time of any candidate in Iowa, thus allowing him to get the highest tally in an 8-way race. There have only been 2 "real candidates" since the summer- Perry and Romney. Once Perry embarrassed himself for the umpteenth time, Romney had this in the bank. Nobody but Romney is running what anybody who's observed more than one Presidential cycle would call a "real campaign." How much money does Santorum have? How many paid staffers/volunteers? Endorsements by elected officials?

    Newt had a long-shot path- leverage your Adelson money with pitch-perfect resentment performance art at the debates, and then hope Romney wilts. Didn't happen. So this is over for him, and of course, Santorum as well.

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  2. I agree this should be the end of the line for Rick Santorum, especially since he does not have a Super PAC willing to spend millions to get his name out there post-Iowa. I was not surprised by his first place finish there and actually predicted he'd win (foolishly paid off a bet when Romney was declared the winner). But, as you mention, Iowa is far less important than the media makes it out to be. It is, I think, a make or break state for those who bank upon it being a test of their viability. Had Santorum finished 4th or lower he would have gone home already. Huckabee in 2008 was not a serious challenger to McCain, either, in spite of his win in Iowa. So, I don't think Santorum was viable nationally regardless of the Iowa outcome.

    Overall, I think your 4th idea is probably closer to the truth. Party actors had settled on Romney as the best of a weak lot once all the formidable challengers chose not to run and Rick Perry demonstrated himself as not ready for the national stage. They did not perceive a need to rally around Romney until Newt started throwing bombs in South Carolina and appealing to populist Tea-Party sentiment, thus no need to circle the wagons around Romney. Santorum never had the name recognition, the money, or the press in his corner. Add to that the fact that Santorum lost his last election by 17 points in what is seen as a battleground state by both parties this year and it is much clearer why party elites don't support him. Can you imagine a scenario in which the voters of PA go to the polls and re-elect Bob Casey while simultaneously supporting Santorum for President? I can't, and neither could the GOP.

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    1. There's another explanation, which is that Gingrich is a southerner and Santorum is not. Gingrich knew how to appeal to that niche and could speak their language ("food stamp President").

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  3. One of the arguments in favor of starting the process in a place like Iowa was that Iowa is small, an ideal setting for one-on-one retail politics. A determined candidate with few resources could start early, spend a lot of time there, and make a personal pitch. If the candidate did well, he (or she) would benefit from the attention and money that would follow. Well, that's Santorum. Why didn't it work? Was the Iowa scenario overly optimistic to begin with? Was it the fact that his victory wasn't acknowledged until after New Hampshire (although his second-place position was pretty close)? Was it the personal history and shortcominigs that Rob points out? Or did it work, just not well enough to make a difference in the end?

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    1. I got lost inside my own head and forgot about JB's reasons. But my basic question is: Does this outcome tell other underfinanced candidates (conservative or otherwise) not to bother spending half a year in Iowa, or is the outcome tied to this particular candidate and election cycle?

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    2. The claim that Iowa and New Hampshire favor "retail politics" is a myth anyway. Starting in small states allows the party more control, not less, because it's much easier to influence a tiny election than to influence a gigantic one.

      You have to separate the TV show (which says that when the candidates go into Iowa, it's all up for grabs and then the well-informed, civic minded voters in Iowa and New Hampshire respond to retail politics and winnow down the field, with the reality, which Jonathan Bernstein expressed well here:

      "If that's the case, the nomination was probably a done deal well before Iowa, even though on the surface (compared to, say, 2000 in both parties) there seemed to be reason for uncertainty."

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    3. Well, JB leaves himself some wiggle room on that. I'm beginning to lean toward "it worked, but not well enough." "Worked" in the sense that he has survived through Florida, which didn't seem evident from the beginning. In the long run, you may be right.

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    4. On Dilan's point: I don't think small states are easier to influence than big ones for the parties (see DE, UT, and AK Senate primaries in 2010), but that the sequential process works well for the parties. They can't prevent someone from winning in one state, but generally can crush someone they don't like in the long run.

      And, yeah, I think we don't know enough to know whether Santorum really had a chance after Iowa.

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