Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Does Santorum have a shot?

Conventional wisdom has it that Mitt Romney has all but locked up the nomination, even though the very first caucuses won't start for a few hours yet. Usually, I don't put much stock in conventional wisdom about elections (where the wisest choice is often to abstain from predicting anything), but this time might be a little different. Romney really does seem unstoppable. Making Romney's case once again, here's Ezra Klein:
Let’s say fortune smiles on those of us who need to sell papers and Santorum edges out Romney. That would be front-page news all across the country. Santorum would be on the cover of every magazine. He would be booked for every political talk show. He would be the subject of every op-ed page. And yet, not a person out there — perhaps not even Santorum himself — would think for a moment that a Santorum victory in Iowa means that Rick Santorum will be the Republican nominee for president in 2012. Indeed, for all Santorum’s sudden strength, the InTrade betting markets give him a 4.5 percent chance of capturing the nomination. Some surge.

...

Rather than challenging Romney, Paul and Santorum are preventing a challenge to Romney. There is reason to think that a candidate like Newt Gingrich or Rick Perry could make a strong run at Romney if they caught momentum out of Iowa. But Paul and Santorum are squeezing those candidates out in Iowa, and since Romney is almost certainly going to romp to victory in New Hampshire, it’s much harder to see where a plausible not-Romney can score an upset victory that would actually change the underlying dynamics of the race. The strength that Paul and Santorum are showing in Iowa is, in other words, a boon to Romney’s chances, not a threat to them.

And once Romney begins racking up primary wins, he’s the nominee.
I find this argument pretty convincing, but it also has a pretty huge problem. Nobody "thinks for a moment" that Santorum can win, but why can't he win? Personally, I'm finding it surprisingly difficult to say.

Compare Santorum to Ron Paul. (As Klein points out, Intrade considers them both about equally likely to win.) Paul has spent a very long time challenging Republican orthodoxy. He's a fringe political figure, but he's a fringe political figure with a reputation. Party activists types already have an opinion about Ron Paul; he's got a lot of enemies; his positions are notably idiosyncratic. Many of his supporters are the crankiest of the cranks. The idea of Ron Paul heading up the GOP ticket turns most of the party elite to stone. There's no way Paul could realistically surmount the obstacles between him and the nomination.

Next to Paul, Santorum looks... not so bad.

Okay, he certainly has major weaknesses. His campaign doesn't have much of an organization (basically, it's all in Iowa). He's not well-known. And his primary focus is on social conservatism and bombing Iran, while the conventional wisdom -- there it is again! -- says that 2012's Republicans are concerned with economic issues.

But are these actually persuasive reasons for ruling Santorum out? I'm not so sure. His organizational issues are a hindrance, no doubt -- but a couple of solid wins (Iowa and South Carolina, for instance) will raise his profile fast. What about the importance of focusing on the economy? Here, I think the conventional wisdom really is wrong. Yes, the economy will probably be the central issue in the general election, because there's been more cause for voters to change their mind about it over the last four years than anything else. But primaries aren't about picking between different ideas for leading the country, they're about picking candidates that sync most closely with a party's views. Last I checked, the GOP hasn't abandoned social conservatism, even slightly.

Finally, there's Santorum's relative anonymity. In my view, anonymity isn't a weakness at all -- it's Santorum's greatest strength. If the last few months have taught us anything at all, the list of qualifications for being a Romney alternative is incredibly short:
  • Must be more conservative than Mitt Romney
  • Must not be Jon Huntsman
The list of things that can help disqualify a candidate from being a Romney alternative, on the other hand, is longer:
  • Can't remember executive departments
  • Committed sex crimes
  • Is less electable than Mitt Romney
  • Wants to reduce military commitments overseas
  • Megalomania
  • Not knowing what Libya is
  • Being, like, maybe a huge racist
  • Flirted with supporting universal health care
  • Granting small kindnesses to illegal immigrants
As of right now, many Republican voters presumably realize that Rick Santorum is both more conservative than Romney and is also not Jon Huntsman. And according to six months of polling data, that's quite enough for Santorum to earn a good number of those votes. The more they learn about him, though, the more likely they are to find that he's actually kind of a bad pick.

If you look at things that way, Santorum's actually entering the race in a state of peak electability: he's an anonymous conservative with no visible political blemishes. He is, in other words, nothing if not superior to the deeply-tarnished, widely-loathed, not-so-conservative Newt Gingrich... who, people have happily been conceding, once posed a major threat to Romney. So what gives? Why was Gingrich viable while Santorum isn't? Why is Santorum continually lumped in with Paul? Is he really worse or more embarrassing than pre-surge Cain?
Like I said, I'm going with my gut here. I expect Romney to sweep to victory in a few hours. Still, "poor odds of winning" isn't the same as "no chance whatsoever," and it sure seems like a lot of people are saying the latter while there's only really any evidence for the former.

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