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Was Rick Santorum good? Or was he lucky?

By Ezra Klein,

Steve Pope GETTY IMAGES Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum speaks at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition Event, Monday March 7, 2011 in Waukee, Iowa. Much of the punditry on Rick Santorum’s strong finish in Iowa is attributing his late success to his social conservatism, or the endorsements of major evangelical leaders, or his dogged commitment to retail politics. In other words: Santorum finished in the top three because he did something important right. But there’s a simpler explanation, too: Santorum finished in the top three because he was lucky.

Santorum’s surge followed a pattern we’ve seen over and again in the Republican primary. The difference is that Santorum’s surge translated into votes. But that was the result of good timing. By the time Iowa’s Republicans turned their attention to Santorum, they were out of viable not-Romneys. Viewed that way, however, Santorum’s surge doesn’t prove he was an unusually effective campaigner, or that his ideas were appealing. If anything, it proves the opposite.

Back in October, Ron Brownstein argued that the Republican primary had become “two races running along parallel but very distinct tracks.” One track was the non-Tea Party primary. These were the 50 percent of Republicans who told pollsters they were either “neutral” or “negative” on the Tea Party. The other was the Tea Party primary, composed of the 50 percent of Republicans who told pollsters they were sympathetic to the Tea Party.

If you looked at the polls, Brownstein said, the non-Tea Party Republicans were coalescing around Mitt Romney. The Tea Party Republicans were searching desperately for an alternative to Romney.

Before Santorum took the lead in the Tea Party primary, Donald Trump, Mike Huckabee, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul topped the polls. But for various reasons, each of them proved ultimately unacceptable. Huckabee and Trump passed on the race. Perry oscillated between saying the wrong thing and forgetting what he meant to say altogether. Cain was accused of serial sexual harassment. Gingrich turned out to be, well, Gingrich. Paul proved too extreme for most of the Republican Party to accept.

That left Santorum and Jon Huntsman. And Huntsman wasn’t competing in Iowa. So it really left Santorum. And it left him at the exact right moment — with enough time for his surge to build momentum, but not so much time that he came under real scrutiny or had to deliver high-stakes debate performances or withstand attacks from Romney’s super-PACs. Santorum might just have been the next not-Romney, but he was the not-Romney at the moment that being the not-Romney actually mattered.

Viewed that way, however, Santorum’s finish doesn’t say much about his ideology, or his campaign skills, or his endorsements. Quite the opposite, in fact. In a race where a large number of anti-Romney voters were desperate to find a candidate, Santorum was unable to attract significant support until the very end, when the anti-Romney vote literally had nowhere else to go. If he had been a better candidate, he would have crested earlier.

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Dated Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich, Paul and Santorum; settled for Romney

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