Santorum Fights Back

Last night, Rick Santorum, former Senator for Pennsylvania, a man who compares homosexuality to bestiality, a man who considers pregnancy through rape a ‘gift from God’, a man who lost his last Senate election by over 700,000 votes, comprehensively routed frontrunner Mitt Romney in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri.

This, it is fair to say, wasn’t in the script. Mitt Romney was supposed to be far out in front by now and ease through February with win after convincing win. Rick Santorum wasn’t even supposed to still be in the race; his surprising win in Iowa devalued by a disappointing string of third- and fourth-place finishes, he was supposed to have dropped out and endorsed Newt Gingrich by now.

These were not even slim victories, of the type Santorum won in Iowa. In Missouri, Santorum won by 30 points. In Minnesota, Romney took only 16% of the vote and finished in third, behind Ron Paul. In Colorado, Romney saw the 60% he won against John McCain in 2008 drop to 35%. Romney will still feel that he will gain the nomination, but yesterday was both a shock (Intrade gave Romney a 97% chance of winning Colorado) and a humiliation.

The popular explanation that has emerged for yesterday’s results states that a long month of campaigning has left Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich exhausted and bloody, while Rick Santorum (who has essentially been out of the race since Iowa) has avoided any attacks from either. As Ron Paul is regarded a ‘fringe’ candidate by many, this leaves Santorum the only real choice for Republicans swayed by the negative campaigning from both the Romney and Gingrich camps. Though this analysis certainly holds weight (and we should remember that 90% of the adverts in Florida were negative), I believe yesterday’s results had far less to do with the actions of the candidates than a pair of announcements made in the last week.

The first of these announcements was that unemployment has dropped, again, to its lowest point since February 2009. What is cause for celebration for most of the country is a worrying trend for Mitt Romney. Romney has campaigned on a platform that emphasises economic competence. He has spoken time and again about job creation and Obama’s mishandling of the recession. He has cast himself as a technocrat with a shrewd business mind, who may not enthuse the voters, but at least he will make jobs for them. However, this tactic rests on a poor economy, and an inefficient president as bogeyman, and unfortunately for Romney, Barack Obama was able to follow up announcing the creation of 200,000 more jobs in December with that of 240,000 more in January. With the economy improving, it is perhaps inevitable that the focus of the electorate would shift.

The second announcement ensured this shift. As voters went to the polls yesterday, the California Supreme Court ruled that Proposition 8 – the banning of gay marriage – was unconstitutional. Santorum tweeted his disagreement with the ruling, but privately he will have been smiling, as the decision will have helped his cause no end in yesterday’s elections. If Romney has focused his campaign on the economy and jobs, Santorum’s emphasis from the start has been on social issues. He has spoken repeatedly on abortion, contraception and, indeed, gay marriage and accused his opponents of being soft on these conservative issues. The timing of these two announcements on jobs and gay marriage has worked to shift the relevance from Romney’s message to Santorum’s, and perhaps won Santorum those states yesterday.

While yesterday was a bad day for Mitt Romney, it was an even worse one for Newt Gingrich, who came a distant third in Colorado, fourth in Minnesota, and failed to even get on the ballot in Missouri. The results were a disappointment, but Gingrich may be happy to take a step back, recover his preferred ‘outsider’ label, and allow Santorum to take the brunt of Romney’s attack machine for a while. If nothing else, it should take the attention off Gingrich’s ‘moon colonisation’ idea, for now at least.

The big winner yesterday was not Rick Santorum, but Barack Obama. It is becoming almost a cliché to cast Obama as the winner of a Republican primary, but it is simply true. Yesterday’s results almost guarantee that a four-candidate race will continue for weeks more, and the longer this battle goes on, the more likely Obama will gain reelection. Romney will most likely eventually gain the nomination, but his favourability ratings are falling as the race continues. Perhaps most importantly, a poll published today shows an ‘enthusiasm gap‘ between the Democrats and Republicans, with a quarter of conservatives ‘not excited at all’ to vote in November. For enthusiasm to drop as an election approaches is highly unusual and very worrying for the Republicans, who if this trend continues, should be preparing for four more years out of office.

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About ourfriendsinthewest

A British take on American politics.

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