Back to previous page


Post Most

Santorum-Romney battle reveals stark divide in the GOP

By ,

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Illinois--The big, cheering crowd in the school gymnasium here Friday night spoke to the distance Rick Santorum has traveled since those lonely days when his candidacy was dismissed as a hopeless exercise. It spoke also to the divide that now defines the Republican presidential campaign.

Santorum’s victories in Alabama and Mississippi last week cemented his status as Romney’s principal rival. What he needs to go even farther, however, is to defeat Romney in a state like Illinois, whose primary is Tuesday.

As Santorum closed out his rally Friday night, he sounded as if he were looking for a political miracle. “You can turn this race completely on its head,” he said. “No one is expecting us to do well in Illinois.”

Why is a state like Illinois so potentially difficult for Santorum? He once led the polls in both Michigan and Ohio, two other Midwestern industrial states, and one poll taken little more than a week ago showed him within a few points of Romney here. But in the end he fell short in those two other heartland battlegrounds. He could be heading toward the same outcome on Tuesday, as more recent polls are suggesting.

So much has been written about frontrunner Mitt Romney’s inability to put away his rivals with greater ease and why he hasn’t wrapped up the nomination more quickly. But another part of this contest is why it may not be possible for Santorum, the candidate seemingly most in tune with the Republican base, to overtake Romney, who has been unable to win over significant portions of that base.

The reasons only partly relate to Romney’s or Santorum’s skills as a candidate, or even the huge differential in resources. What now defines the contest for the Republican nomination are the demographics of today’s Republican Party.

Whatever weaknesses people ascribe to Romney or Santorum as candidates, the Republican race is turning on the economic and religious divides in the GOP coalition. That’s why states like Illinois, Michigan and Ohio are difficult for Santorum and states like Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee were hard for Romney.

Santorum is the candidate of evangelical Christians, voters who are very conservative and Republicans who make less than $100,000 a year. Romney consistently does best among those making more than $100,000 a year, non-evangelicals and Republicans who say they are only somewhat conservative or moderate or liberal.

You can see the two parts of the party at the rallies of the two candidates. Santorum’s on Friday was held at the Christian Liberty Academy. The audience, more than 1,000 strong, included parents with small children, young families, people who said they were struggling economically. Romney’s rallies look and feel different, less overtly religious with fewer references to social issues by the introductory speakers.

Santorum stresses his blue-collar roots, but in his speeches he talks less about jobs and more about freedom, less about tax cuts and small business incentives and more about the cultural differences he has with Obama. He talks about family and invokes God as a central force in America success. Romney focuses primarily on jobs and economic themes.

The Republican Party rules have been blamed or credited with stretching out the nomination battle this year, which is true. Proportional allocation of delegates slows any frontrunner’s path to victory. But more starkly than in some past years, the economic and cultural divisions within the party have been highlighted.

Because of this, the nomination battle has become a long slog, seemingly destined to play out until the end of the primaries and caucuses in June. Romney remains the likely winner. He is ahead in votes and delegates, has a more robust campaign infrastructure and will be able to swamp Santorum on television because he and his super PAC have far more money.

But Santorum should win his share of the remaining contests. Just as Romney is favored in Illinois, Santorum will be favored next Saturday in Louisiana. Romney will be favored in states like New York, California and New Jersey. Santorum can look to states like Texas, West Virginia and North Carolina, where evangelical Christians will make up more than half the electorate.

The patterns are similar to those that came to define the Democratic race between President Obama and Hillary Clinton four years ago. He had his coalition — college-educated, affluent, liberals and African Americans. And she had hers — more blue-collar types, Democrats without college degrees, Hispanics.

The Obama campaign made a chart the night of Super Tuesday in 2008 predicting the outcome of the rest of the primaries and caucuses, based almost solely on the demographics of the electorates. It was remarkably accurate.

The same might be done now for the Republican race, based on the coalitions of Romney and Santorum.

Had Romney broken this pattern earlier, the race would not be where it is now. But what may be almost as surprising as Santorum’s success is that a Republican Party grounded in the South, a party that has moved to the right and has a significant share of its voters who are religious conservatives and a growing cadre of blue-collar workers, could end up nominating a Mormon from Massachusetts with two Ivy League degrees.

Romney is now the inexorable candidate, with Santorum trying to upend conventional wisdom. He speaks not only to the grievances that conservatives have about the Obama administration but also to the frustrations of conservative voters, particularly in a state like Illinois, which is better known for its moderate brand of Republican.

As the former senator from Pennsylvania put it on Friday night, “You can make up for all of the slights by the leaders of this party here in Illinois. You can go out and win this race.”

A Santorum victory here truly would shake up the campaign because it would be a sign that he has broken the cultural boundaries of the Republican race. But as the contests so far have shown, that will be a tall order.

© The Washington Post Company