Rick Santorum hoping ideology will trump electability

Dan Balz
Chief correspondent March 13, 2012

Ever since he swept three contests on a single night in February, Rick Santorum has argued that the Republican presidential nomination battle is effectively a two-man race between himself and Mitt Romney. Tuesday’s primaries decisively turned that claim into reality. Now Santorum must prove that ideology can trump electability with GOP voters who are hungry to defeat President Obama in November.

Santorum’s victories in Alabama and Mississippi once again shook up the Republican contest, although they may not have fundamentally altered its trajectory. Even in losing the two primaries, Romney has still won more states and still holds a significant lead in the race for delegates.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent. View Archive

But with former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) unable to win either state in his home region, Santorum clearly earned the opportunity to try to consolidate the party’s conservative base, which has been resistant to Romney’s candidacy. The former senator from Pennsylvania must now convince Republicans in other regions that his brand of conservatism would make him a stronger nominee against Obama.

Santorum will have three chances in the next week to demonstrate that he can win that argument and that he can defeat Romney. The most important will take place on Tuesday in Illinois. The primary there could become a rerun of the battles Romney and Santorum waged in Michigan and Ohio. Santorum fell just short in both. That makes Illinois pivotal to his hopes of overtaking his main rival.

Before that, caucuses will be held Saturday in Missouri, where the former senator won a beauty-contest primary last month. On Sunday, Puerto Rico will hold its primary. Santorum and Romney will both campaign there beforehand.

Gingrich, who had counted on a win Tuesday, is a badly wounded candidate. A third comeback seems less likely now than the two he engineered over the past six months, but strange things have happened this year. Although he has vowed to continue on to the Republican National Convention in late August, he will face pressure to end his candidacy and make room for Santorum to isolate Romney one on one. Even if Gingrich doesn’t drop out, he may be much less of a factor in many of the upcoming states.

Romney, too, came away disappointed. On Tuesday morning, his campaign was quietly hoping that he might steal Mississippi, which would have been one of the biggest surprises in a year filled with unexpected twists and turns. Few people predicted that the former governor of liberal Massachusetts had a chance to win a state where almost eight in 10 voters are evangelical Christians and four in 10 say they consider themselves “very conservative.” In the end, it was too much to overcome.

Moments before Mississippi tipped to Santorum’s column, Romney’s advisers argued that the former governor was likely to achieve his goal of emerging with at least a third of the delegates from the four contests on Tuesday — the other two being in Hawaii and American Samoa.

But his campaign also hoped that if Romney couldn’t win one of the Southern states, Gingrich at least would do well enough to keep the conservative vote divided as long as possible.

A Romney-Santorum race would split the Republican electorate along class and ideological lines. Santorum has consistently won more votes than Romney among those whose household incomes are below $100,000, and Romney has won the wealthiest voters. The former governor has done best in urban and suburban areas, while the former senator has done better in rural areas and small towns.

Santorum has done better among those who say they are “very conservative,” while Romney has done well with those who say they are “somewhat conservative” or “moderate to liberal.” Those rifts are not likely to change significantly in the contests ahead.

Where Romney has consistently performed better, however, is on electability — the area where Santorum has been weakest. In virtually every contest with exit polls, Romney has won Republicans who say electability was the most important factor in their vote. That was the case again on Tuesday in Alabama and Mississippi.

Romney also has been the favorite in most contests among Republicans who cite the economy as the most important issue in their voting decision. Santorum will need to change that if he expects to give Romney a real challenge.

Finally, there is the challenge Santorum faces in trying to convert Gingrich supporters to his camp, particularly if the former speaker continues to campaign in many of the upcoming states. Although Santorum and Gingrich voters may share some ideological tendencies, they are not necessarily transferable from one candidate to the other.

Exit polls Tuesday showed that more of Gingrich’s supporters in the two Southern states put a greater emphasis on electability than on having a candidate who is a “true conservative” or has “strong moral character.”

Santorum has continued to defy the odds in the GOP race. Badly outspent and often underestimated, he nonetheless has propelled his candidacy forward when most analysts doubted him. Tuesday gave him another boost. But the road ahead will be long and difficult.

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