It’s social issues, stupid!
When James Carville first proclaimed, “It’s the economy, stupid,” it became the path to Bill Clinton’s successful run for the presidency in 1992.
Twenty years later with America mired in a far-worse economy, Rick Santorum is riding a very different wave as social issues have so far trumped the economic worries of the GOP base, particularly evangelicals.
After what most people would have considered a horrible week for Santorum, calling the president a “snob” for suggesting that Americans aspire to a college education, and saying John F. Kennedy’s famous speech supporting separation of church and state made Santorum want to “throw up,” he continued to rack up the evangelical votes, this time in Michigan where he nearly pulled off the upset in Mitt Romney’s “home” state. Santorum won 51 percent of the evangelical vote in Michigan compared with Romney’s 35 percent.
Those statements were just the latest examples of how Santorum is attracting voters despite taking position after position that moderates might see as suicidal: He has suggested that he would not be against states banning contraception, that women might be better off at home than in the work place, that this is a Christian country, etc. The more extreme his statements, the higher his numbers.
He doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that social issues are his sweet spot with the base.
Newt Gingrich tried the same approach in South Carolina. He painted Romney as a Massachusetts liberal and won. When the story broke that his ex wife accused him of wanting an open marriage he derided debate moderator John King for asking about it to huge applause. The general feeling the next day was that it was a one day story that didn’t matter to evangelical voters. But that’s when Gingrich’s downward spiral began. It’s one thing to get divorced. It’s another to claim to be religious yet have an affair while you’re still married. Women didn’t like it and Gingrich hasn’t won a primary since.
While Gingrich faded, Santorum soared. He figured out that primary voters, who certainly care about the economy, care more about values. They feel more comfortable with a candidate who shares their views on social issues: abortion, contraception, women’s roles in society, gay marriage, religion.
Santorum hardly gives a speech without throwing some social issues “red meat” to the base. Yet when these statements, outrageous to some, are reported in the media, he complains that nobody is writing about his economic positions.
John Brabender, a Santorum senior advisor has said : “There’s a lot that’s written about Rick that he feels is not really who he is. Instead of letting perceptions become the reality based upon what we would consider images that are pushed by his opponents or segments of the news media that might be less favorable, he wants to provide a fuller picture of the reality.”
Yet Santorum continues the steady stream of statements many see as outrageously pandering to the evangelical base. And he is convincing. Santorum seems to genuinely believe women belong in the home, that they should not use contraception, should not be allowed abortions even in the case of rape or incest. He seems to genuinely believe women should not be allowed in combat, that homosexuality is a sin, that gays should not be allowed to marry, that separation of church and state have no place in our society, that we are a Christian nation and Islam is evil. I think he really believes that education can be dangerous and that children can be indoctrinated in college to change their beliefs.
All of these positions, suffice it to say, are not exactly mainstream.
But Santorum feels strongly about them and so do many of the Republicans who are voting for him.
The fact is, the economy ebbs and flows, but in bad economic times, when people are afraid, it is our values and beliefs we rely upon.
Even conservative voters realize that, as President Obama has said, there is no magic bullet to fix the economy. But those voters also know that voting for somebody who shares their social values will make them feel more comfortable.
How this would play out for Santorum in the general election is another story. Were he to win the nomination, Santorum would have to go toward the middle to win over moderates, independents and swing voters who have no patience with extremism on either side. So he is now in the uncomfortable position of trying to back off some of his more recent statements. He has said he wishes he had not made the remark about Kennedy’s speech making him want to vomit. He was falling all over himself in his “concession” speech in Michigan to talk about how his mother went to college, how she worked outside the home, to talk about his wife’s education and how smart his daughters were.
Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were able to talk about social issues in a way that reassured voters that they had no intention of imposing their beliefs on others. Though Santorum gives lip service to that position occasionally, many moderates find it hard to believe.
How will this play out? Romney remains the frontrunner for the nomination. Even though he is no Santorum, Romney has been forced to the right by Santorum and there are likely many swing voters who will associate Romney with the social issues Santorum has espoused.
This campaign is a long march. Values and social issues have a resonance this year that they have never had before. Rick Santorum realized that early on and took advantage of it. It has gotten him, against all odds, into a place of running neck-and-neck with Romney, the anointed frontrunner. Whether social issues will continue to resonate remains to be seen.
But anyone who discounts them would be, shall we say, stupid.
Sally Quinn | Mar 1, 2012 4:58 PM