A near miss can be a sharp spur, so Rick Santorum wants to say something to those who profess condescending puzzlement about his persistence in pursuing the Republican presidential nomination: You probably have no idea how close I came to defeating Mitt Romney in 2012.
Since 1968, he notes, the Republican presidential nominees emerging from contested primaries have been either former or sitting vice presidents (Richard Nixon, George H. W. Bush), an incumbent president (Gerald Ford), a son of a president (George W. Bush) or men who previously were runners-up for the nomination (Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain, Mitt Romney). Santorum intends to join this last group, starting in Iowa next February.
It was there in 2012 that he won the caucuses about two weeks too late. On the night of the caucuses, Romney was declared the winner by eight votes. Late-certified results from eight (of 1,774) caucuses made Santorum the winner by 34 votes. Had this result been recorded on caucus night with the donors and journalists paying rapt attention, his stunning upset — a few weeks earlier he had barely registered in those polls that bothered to mention him — would, he thinks, have triggered a deluge of contributions.
This, he thinks, would have enabled him to win in Romney’s native state, Michigan. Santorum insists “I crushed him on [the primary] Election Day,” and that Romney’s margin of victory came from absentee ballots cast early.
Winning Michigan (Romney got 409,522 votes, Santorum 377,372) would have validated Santorum as more than a product of Iowa quirkiness. Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s 2013 book “Double Down” says that Romney believed that if he lost Michigan his campaign would have been doomed. Even without a financial and political boost from a Michigan victory, seven days after Michigan, Santorum lost Ohio by just 0.8 percent of the vote, even though he had so little money he ran no ads in Cincinnati or Cleveland.
But as the poet said, “for of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘it might have been!’ ” Santorum, like the winner of the 2008 caucuses, Mike Huckabee, cannot be a fresh face in Iowa twice. Still, Santorum will be backed by a super PAC that will enable him to survive some defeats, and he thinks this year’s crowded field will be “like a cycling race: You don’t want to be the lead cyclist, with all the wind resistance and the bugs in your eyes. You want to lay back in the pack.”
He will be back there while trying to change the perception of him as a one-note crusader on social issues. The achievements of which he is most proud from his 16 years in Congress concerned other matters — he was floor manager of the most important legislation of the 1990s, welfare reform, and helped create term limits for Republican committee chairs.
Today he speaks to the approximately 70 percent of Americans “who don’t have a college degree and are competing with the unskilled workers who are coming into this country.” Americans whose incomes have been stagnating for many years deserve a spokesman, but one with better ideas than Santorum’s proposal to reduce legal immigration by 25 percent. Santorum is, alas, not alone in speaking for a timorous America in a defensive crouch: Scott Walker, too, is questioning current levels of legal immigration.
Furthermore, Santorum also flinches from free trade. This is another consequence of subscribing to the “lump of labor” theory — that there is a static supply of jobs, so immigration and foreign competition is a zero-sum transaction.
In 2016, he says, he must do “exceptionally well” in Iowa. New Hampshire is uncongenial because it is, he says, “the second-most secular state” measured by church attendance (second only to contiguous Vermont). South Carolina Republicans, however, might feel remorse about favoring Newt Gingrich in 2012. Santorum is sure he would have won Michigan if Gingrich (65,027 votes) had not won South Carolina.
Santorum must get on stage for the televised debates. The first is in August, hosted by Fox News, which might need to formulate admission criteria to filter the field, lest candidate congestion make the event ridiculous. Santorum thinks qualifying for the debate should be like qualifying for the Masters golf tournament: Past winners, or those who did particularly well in the previous year’s Masters, are automatically admitted. Last time he was the last one standing against Romney.