Powered by Max Banner Ads 

By Stump Connolly

It’s hard to see after the Illinois primary how Mitt Romney will not be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. You don’t need exit polls to know it. You don’t need to count delegates, be inspired by his speeches (just try) or even like the guy. You just have to look around at the competition.

Only two weeks ago, Illinois Republicans looked like they were in the rare position of playing a pivotal role selecting the party nominee. After double victories in Alabama and Mississippi, Rick Santorum was on a roll, and Illinois was a rust belt state where he could cancel out his narrow losses to Romney in Ohio and Michigan––and gain the upperhand in the race.

On March 11, the Chicago Tribune reported Romney’s support in Illinois was just 35 percent among Republicans––only four points higher than Santorum’s 31 percent (and within the margin of error). Newt Gingrich’s fast fading star left him at 12. Ron Paul was mired around 7 But the critical fact in the poll was that 16 percent of Republicans were still undecided. Illinois was Romney’s to lose.

So what did Santorum do? He went to Puerto Rico for two days, told the natives they’d have to learn English to gain statehood, and promptly lost all 20 of Puerto Rico’s delegates to Romney in an 83 to 8 percent landslide.

Meanwhile, the Romney campaign flooded the Illinois airwaves with TV spots. (In the metro Chicago market, Romney outspent Santorum 21 to 1.) He doubled up his campaign stops in the Chicago suburbs and rolled out a succession of endorsements from state party leaders at every turn.

By Tuesday’s primary, his popular support among Republicans was up to 47 percent while Santorum lagged 12 points behind at 35 percent. There were high fives all around the Romney celebration party, and a nagging question: Did Romney win Illinois? Or did Santorum lose it?

Speaking from the Heart

Every successful presidential campaign has a narrative arc, and Rick Santorum’s is as good as they get. A little known Senator from Pennsylvania, defeated by 19 points in his 2006 bid for re-election, Santorum entered the presidential race this year because he felt a calling that America was at a crossroads. He spent six months in the wilds of Iowa, going from truck stops to diners, speaking his heart to voters, and the national press hardly noticed. Although he acquitted himself well in the Republican debates, his support in the polls never rose about single digits.

Other conservative contenders surged and fell by the wayside, but Santorum soldiered on. With a last minute boost from a millionaire Super PAC donor, his hopeful message made it to television. His supporters turned out at the caucuses and he won (although the Election Night tally gave the race to Romney by eight votes). There was suddenly some air in Santorum’s balloon: not enough to compete in the bruising South Carolina and Florida primaries, but enough to draw
evangelical and conservative groups to Santorum rallies in other caucus states that would be voting in February.

After Romney vanquished Gingrich in Florida, Santorum’s subsequent victories in Missouri, Colorado and Minnesota gave him the coveted conservative mantle of the anti-Romney. He was, suddenly, the little engine that could. He didn’t have a bevy of campaign consultants. His travelling staff was small, and he kind of made up his positions as he went along

“Our model was a MacGyver model. We give Rick an hamburger and a road map and he wins Iowa,” his communications director Hogan Gidley recently told the National Journal. “Rick knows a lot of this stuff on his own. He doesn’t need to be loaded up on his talking points. He doesn’t need Washington bureaucrats to tell him what to do and how to think.”

Ambivalence over Romney’s appeal to party conservatives––and especially his failure to “seal the deal” with sweeping victories in the March 6 Super Tuesday primaries––raised questions in the media whether his nomination was an inevitable as the Romney camp said. The door opened for Santorum to seize the momentum in the race. He was the featured attraction on the Sunday morning talk shows. He was given plenty of time to set out his case for becoming president, and he responded to the opportunity with a baffling array of opinions about the morality of contraception and the need for more religion in the public square. With an open mic before him, he talked about everything but solutions to the economic problems that Republicans believe give them a good shot at regaining the White House.

Three Fatal Flaws

It takes nothing away from Santorum’s sincerity (or constitutes a judgment on his positions) to say this detour into social issues has not helped his case. “The voters want to talk about gas prices, and jobs, and the economy. They’re not interested in bringing bedroom issues into the kitchen,” as Donna Brazille put it on CNN. But not having the disciple to stay on the economic theme was only one of three fatal flaws that cost Santorum the race in Illinois––and will cripple his campaign going forward.

His decision to go off campaigning in Puerto Rico can be dismissed as a miscalculation in the heat of battle. (“Hey, everybody would like to take back some decisions in retrospect,” his press secretary Alice Stewart said.) But the larger problem is that, despite all the grassroots fervor going his way, Santorum has failed to build the kind of fundamental political organization that wins modern day elections.

His original sin was not looking at the race with any overview of how a candidate gets from his initial announcement to his acceptance speech. Admittedly, that may be hard when you are staying in a Motel 6 after having had breakfast with four farmers in Clinton, Iowa. But it is worth noting because that is what has kept Romney in the race. His campaign team back in Boston has had road maps covering all contingencies. There was a Florida strategy, a Super Tuesday strategy, and a delegate strategy (cribbed by studying Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign).

Santorum’s strategyseems to be following whatever trail takes him to wherever he thinks (guesses) he will find pockets of support. It has been developed with little regard for the nuances of the proportional voting rules Republicans adopted this year––and no concerted effort early on to make sure the campaign took full advantage of them. That’s why Santorum missed the filing deadlines in Virginia and the District of Columbia (and almost Indiana). That’s why he didn’t field delegate slates in four congressional districts in Ohio, four more in Illinois, and uncounted more in California coming up. And that’s how Romney captured a raft of uncontested delegates in the U.S. Territorial caucuses. Rule #1 in politics: you can’t win if you are not on the ballot.

Money Matters

The second failure of the Santorum campaign was not anticipating the role Super PACs would play in this year’s race. No one was expecting Santorum to raise anywhere near the money Romney has. And yes, there’s virtue in being able to run a campaign on a shoestring. (Let’s have a big round of applause). But money drives the process; and the advent of Super PACs was the one way Santorum might have leveled the playing field.

It’s true that all the major candidates have their Super PAC sugar daddy. Santorum has Foster Friess, Gringrich has Sheldon Adelson, and Romney has all his partners from Bain Company. Without contribution limits, all it takes is one or two millionaires to keep someone in the race, or drive him out. The conservative ranks are rife with wealthy donors so it is surprising to see Santorum hasn’t been able to tap into them more readily. In the heat of battle, fundraising is a distraction. But I would have expected his fundraising team would have been more active. They didn’t need to find a broad base of contributors, just a few more of the right ones. Their failure reinforces rule #2 in politics: money matters.

A Self-Inflicted Wound

The final blow to Santorum’s campaign in Illinois was self-inflicted. In a state dominated by suburban Republicans concerned about economic issues, he veered off once again into social issues. At one stop, he went off on the destructive nature of pornography; at another, the importance of choosing “a fighter for freedom.” Santorum is notorious in the press corps for his off-the-cuff style. Whatever the theme of the day, he will take questions from the audience and, if the topic strikes a chord, wax eloquent on it for several minutes.

The more he talks, the further he gets off message. In Moline on Monday, his insistence that America’s freedom is at stake in this election led him off on a gaffe of Romney-like proportions. “I don’t care what the unemployment rate is going to be. It doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “My campaign doesn’t hinge on unemployment rates and growth rates. It’s something more foundational that’s going on.”

But Rick Santorum can’t help himself. His family values are his political values. And it’s fair to say a good segment of the party agrees with him. Just not enough. So rule #3 in politics comes into play: don’t preach to the converted.

When Does It End?

Rick Santorum’s next step in the race is anybody’s guess. He gave his Illinois concession speech standing in a ballroom in Pennsylvania talking about his prospects for a win in Louisiana. “You know that big things are adrift and at stake in this election,” he said in one of many long, rambling passages that left the press scratching its collective head.

How does such a likeable guy get so off track? The Santorum campaign is politics as we like to think it is practiced in America: an underdog contender comes out of nowhere to challenge the front runners and give America a new direction. In time, we come around to thinking maybe he can do it all. But in Illinois he proved he can’t. Rick Santorum is here, he’s there, he’s everywhere these days. But he’s not going to be the Republican nominee for president.


Trackback URL