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Santorum Withdraws From the Race He Wasn’t Running

April 10, 2012

I’ve expressed the view that Rick Santorum’s campaign is more about the 2016 nomination than the 2012 nomination.  If I’m right, then Santorum’s suspension of his campaign is more authentically a suspension than cynics might be giving him credit for.

The 2012 campaign unarguably made Santorum a better candidate.  By that I don’t mean the campaign made Santorum more appealing to liberals, or even to moderates – I mean it made him more appealing to conservatives.  After a very long list of non-Romney flavors of the month, Santorum was the non-Romney who stuck – he actually beat Mitt in 10 different states, from Colorado to Tennessee and North Dakota to Louisiana.  His appeal to Republicans between the coasts is proven.

Republicans have a fairly venerable tradition of nominating today the also-ran of yesterday:  Ronald Reagan in 1980, George H. W. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996, McCain in 2008, and Mitt Romney in 2012.  In the last 35 years, only George W. Bush won the Republican nomination without losing it first.

Rick Santorum is the runner-up of 2012, and he’s just 53 years old.  Nate Silver notes the obvious fact that if Romney loses to President Obama, Santorum is the instant 2016 Republican front-runner. Andrew Rosenthal lists a series of what he correctly calls Santorum’s “lowest moments,” like comparing gay sex to “man on dog” sex, and questioning Obama’s Christianity – but these are only “low” moments to liberals and moderates, and Santorum’s mission in 2012 was to establish his primacy in the conservative base.

As far as I know, Ross Douthat was the first to identify the “Santorum coalition.”  Douthat, a.k.a. He With Whom I So Rarely Agree, said this on March 7:

“Santorum’s coalition is roughly the same one that Mike Huckabee tried to assemble in 2008. With a demographic mix of evangelicals and blue-collar Republicans, and a message that’s conservative on social issues but more populist than the party’s Wall Street wing on economics, it’s proven capable of delivering states from Minnesota to Mississippi, the Rockies to the Rust Belt.”

As the economy improves, economic conservatism will lose some of its divisive anti-Democratic edge.  But Santorum is primarily a social conservative with a tinge of blue collar populism – a combination that will preserve his ability to rouse the right in better times.

Curiously, the Republican and Democratic parties learn the same lesson from losing presidential elections – they just learn it from opposite perspectives.  Both react to losing by moving to their right.  It’s just that Democrats move from the left to the center; Republicans seem to move from the right to the far right.  The fact is, it’s worked pretty well – Reagan beat Carter after Ford lost to Carter, and Bush Jr. beat Gore after Dole and Bush Sr. lost to Clinton.

So I say Rick Santorum has a big leg up on the 2016 Republican nomination.  Now here’s the really scary part:  Democrats haven’t enjoyed 12 years in the White House since Harry Truman succeeded FDR.  In other words, if Rick Santorum has a big leg up on the 2016 nomination, he has a big leg up on the election.

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