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ThePlumLIneGS whorunsgov plumline
Posted at 09:07 AM ET, 12/27/2011

Could Rick Santorum win the Republican nomination?

With a week to go, Mitt Romney appears to be in good shape. But Iowa (as Nate Silver reminds us) can be highly volatile, and it’s certainly possible that Romney could finish as low as fifth there. Even if he finishes first or second, a surprise third-place (or second-place) finish by one of the current longshots might spark a surge for that candidate, just as Gary Hart’s distant second in 1984 was followed by his stunning upset of Walter Mondale in New Hampshire. What if it’s Rick Santorum who breaks into the top three?

I’ve been saying for some time now that it’s likely that the GOP nomination will go to a candidate who qualifies on two counts: He or she must have orthodox positions on policy issues important to conservatives, and he or she must also have conventional qualifications. Since late summer, only Romney and Rick Perry remain from a group that once included some seven or more plausible nominees, and so I’ve been saying that their combined chances of winning the nomination are very high. (I’ve usually floated a number around 95 percent or so.)

What of Santorum?

He certainly has orthodox conservative views. The reason I’ve written him off is that there are no successful presidential candidates in the modern era with a similar resume. Santorum was crushed in a bid for reelection six years ago. I can’t think of anyone else with a similar pattern who came anywhere near a nomination. Richard Nixon, of course, lost two elections and spent eight years in the wilderness, but a two-time vice president and former nominee is in a whole different league from a senator. For someone whose credential was statewide office to lose reelection and then bounce back and seriously contest the nomination would be something new.

And there’s good reason to believe that’s a systematic effect, not just luck. Party actors are unlikely to back someone like that for higher office because they don’t want to support a loser. Indeed, I’d guess that examples in lower offices (say, members of the House who lose their seats but then become senators) are quite rare, too. There may be one in the Senate right now, but I can’t think of any.

However, suppose that Santorum manages to rally to third place in Iowa, something that isn’t impossible to imagine. What then? It’s possible that conservatives who aren’t excited about Romney might look to him. And if he surged, then his main drawback – that there’s solid evidence that voters don’t like him very much – would suddenly look a lot less important.

Put it another way: We’ve seen what happens when the rest of the field surges (or, in some cases, simply shows up in the race). Large numbers of party actors have turned on Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich, and have opposed Michele Bachmann and Jon Huntsman. Their problems, whether policy (in the cases of Paul and Huntsman) or trust (Gingrich and Bachmann), cannot be resolved by popularity among the rank and file. But Santorum’s, to some extent, perhaps can.

So while I think the candidate most likely to benefit from an unexpected strong finish in Iowa remains Perry — the only candidate who actually showed some strength among party actors during his surge — I’m fairly convinced that Santorum is the next most likely to benefit if he should get the Iowa bump. Basically, if Romney has to match up against Paul, Gingrich, Bachmann or Huntsman one on one after the early states, I think Romney is as close to a lock as you can get in politics. Against Perry? I have no idea. I guess I’d say that Romney would be the favorite against Santorum, but I’m not at all sure that he’d be an overwhelming favorite. Or, to put it one more way: If there’s a 5 percent chance that someone other than Romney or Perry gets the nomination, I’m increasingly inclined to think that most of that 5 percent belongs to Santorum.

By  |  09:07 AM ET, 12/27/2011

 
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