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Sunday, February 19, 2012

SANTORUM: SURGING TOWARDS DEFEAT?


In two short years the political environment has shifted from strong winds at the back of an energized conservative movement to head winds buffeting a fragmented and unfocused Republican presidential primary campaign. The optimism generated by the capture of Republican control of the House of Representatives and an increase in Senate membership in 2010, is rapidly deteriorating. Obama has done little in three years to justify his reelection but his prospects continue to improve. Part of the change is the gradual improvement in some of the economic statistics that affect consumer confidence. The stock market is slowly improving as are employment numbers in terms of job creation and declining claims for unemployment assistance. Housing starts are gradually improving as are existing home sales. These statistics along with the end of U.S. military involvement in Iraq have had a predictable effect on Obama's job approval numbers: 12/6/11: 43.2% - 2/15/12: 48.9%.

Still, both the percent of unemployed and the inventory of unsold existing homes are both high and measures of consumer confidence show declining optimism from late 2011. Also, Obama's job approval is still below 50%. What this seems to indicate is that there should still be a realistic opportunity for a Republican candidate to defeat Obama in November. But the prospects are rapidly diminishing, not totally because of the objective conditions cited above, but by the disgusting deterioration of the Republican nominating struggle.

The contest has from the beginning been one of divided loyalties, with no candidate winning a majority in pre-caucus or primary polls and in only two of the events themselves (Romney in Nevada; Santorum in Missouri). However, as the field was reduced by drop-outs, the competition became more intense as issue positions gave way to personal attacks. Now the debate, eagerly abetted by an irresponsible and sensationalizing media is a festival of irrelevancy: Romney's leadership in the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, his personal wealth and where he invests his money; Gingrich's lobbying, or not, on behalf of the Federal National Mortgage Association (FNMA) and his three marriages; Santorum's votes for “ear marks” (federal funding for local projects) while he served in Congress; and a blizzard of personal insults. The primary process will eventually produce a candidate but the real winner will be Obama, at least in terms of the national presidential campaign. The “seesaw “ dynamic of up and down leaders and reduced voter participation from the 2008 campaign reflects a general lack of enthusiasm for any candidate and a growing disgust with the “street fight” nature of the campaign.

Each of the remaining candidates has their minority core of devoted supporters. Romney supporters overlook his uninspiring, technocratic, leadership deficient persona, and cling to the belief that he is the most electable. Gingrich's supporters enjoy his combative, anti-everybody who disagrees with him, take no prisoners style and forgive him his off the wall comments like his belief that establishing a moon colony is a viable solution to the nation's ills. Ron Paul's relatively small core of supporters remain loyal to his anti-all government, no foreign policy isolationism positions and cast what are essentially protest votes for a failed candidacy.

So the latest leader is former Pennsylvania congressman and senator, Rick Santorum who has the advantage of being the last “anybody but Romney” candidate. Gingrich could theoretically still rebound out of third place into the lead with a strong showing in the March Super Tuesday primaries but Santorum is enjoying his initial surge while Gingrich needs a more difficult second surge. This promises to make Gingrich's tactics more desperate and thus more negative. The Romney campaign, running out of time and behind in the polls, will have to unleash an expensive negative media campaign against Santorum similar to its successful Florida campaign against Gingrich. Santorum will have to respond in kind to both Gingrich and Romney and the whole nominating effort will continue it's transition into the proverbial “ circular firing squad” while the Obama campaign celebrates.

The diminished discussion of a broad vision for the nation's future, effective public policies, and the attempts to fill the substance vacuum with patriotic bromides, feel good cliches' and negative advertising, has allowed Santorum to achieve front runner status with a “values voter”, social issues campaign.. The social issues, with emphasis on abortion and gay rights, in combination with underlying evangelical prejudice against Romney's Mormon religion and his perceived moderate stance on these issues, worked in religiously conservative Iowa. More recently, it was successful in Missouri and in Colorado where the Republican party is heavily evangelical. Since success breeds more success as the “band wagon” effect, however weak, kicks in, Santorum now leads in polls for upcoming primaries as well as in national preference polls of likely Republican voters.

This is more good news for Obama because Santorum's blatantly fundamentalist appeal to the religious right is not shared by the broader electorate who will decide the presidency, and Santorum's emphasis on these issues has, fairly or unfairly, defined the character of his candidacy. In recent national polls Santorum leads with 34.3% to Romney's 27.7%, Gingrich's 14.5% and Paul's 12.3%. (RCP average: 2/8-2/17). But in head to head polls against Obama among all likely voters, Romney still does better although Obama is ahead: Obama 49.3, Romney 43.2; Obama 50.2, Santorum 41.8; Obama 53.0, Gingrich 39.1. It is interesting that in a contest with a generic Republican, Obama and the unnamed Republican are tied at 43.3%. This indicates that given the right candidate, dissatisfaction with Obama could still produce a Republican victory. However the prospect that Santorum could be that candidate seem exceedingly unlikely given the aforementioned orientation of his campaign.

Some simple facts describe his challenge. Santorum is opposed to abortion at any time in pregnancy for any reason. He has said that woman who becomes pregnant by rape should “make the best out of a bad situation.”

The view that abortion should be generally available or available under stricter limits is supported by 74% of the nation while just 23% agree with Santorum that is should never be permitted (CBS/NYT 1/12-1/17).

Santorum, a devout, traditional Catholic with seven children, is opposed to birth control saying it is a public policy issue and “harmful to women”, and as president he “would talk about the the 'dangers of contraception in this country' “. Essentially he has said that sex outside of a procreative purpose is immoral. While the President has no specific authority with respect to birth control, such a position reflects a 19th century mindset with implications for women's health, career opportunities, and the financial viability of families. In the year 2012 this extremely outdated personal belief is an even more bizarre political position. Acknowledging that he had donned a political suicide vest, Santorum recently partially recanted, saying that: “My position is birth control can and should be available.” But he did not change his position on the appropriateness of its use, and the damage was already done. In fact, birth control in all its procedures, but especially in pill form, is almost universally accepted in the U.S. even among the vast majority of Catholic women.

Why do these positions and the related poll numbers matter? In the 2008 presidential election, 53.7% of votes cast were by women. In the last four presidential elections (1996,2000,2004,2008) a “gender gap” was evident in the outcomes. This is the difference between the percentage of women and the percentage of men who vote for a particular candidate. In each of these presidential elections a higher percentage of women than men voted for the Democratic candidates (7-11%) and in each, the Democrat actually won a majority of women's votes. This voting pattern establishes an electoral reality which Republican candidates must face even without specific gender issues being introduced.

Thus the changed character of the nominating contest away from substantive issues and into personal character assassination has produced a severely wounded Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich and may have produced an unelectable front runner, who ironically is also a fiscal conservative but whose chosen path to the nomination is located far afield from the mainstream electorate.

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