Saturday, February 11, 2012

Rick Santorum's culture war and Obama's victory in November


Perhaps not surprisingly, Public Policy Polling just released a survey that has Rick Santorum opening up a wide lead over Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich in their newest national poll. He's at 38% to 23% for Romney and 17% for Gingrich.

As the poll indicates, a big part of the reason that Santorum is doing so well is his high level of popularity as 64% of voters see him favourably to only 22% who have a negative view of him:

But the other, and maybe more important, reason is that Republicans are significantly souring on both Romney and Gingrich. Romney's favorability is barely above water at 44/43, representing a 23 point net decline from our December national poll when he was +24 (55/31). Gingrich has fallen even further. A 44% plurality of GOP voters now hold a negative opinion of him to only 42% with a positive one. That's a 34 point drop from 2 months ago when he was at +32 (60/28). 

Santorum is now completely dominating with several key segments of the electorate, especially the most right leaning parts of the party. With those describing themselves as 'very conservative,' he's now winning a majority of voters at 53% to 20% for Gingrich and 15% for Romney. Santorum gets a majority with Tea Party voters as well at 51% to 24% for Gingrich and 12% for Romney. And with Evangelicals he falls just short of a majority with 45% to 21% for Gingrich and 18% for Romney.

One other rather devastating detail found in the poll for Romney is what would happen if Gingrich were to drop out, which is that 58% of Newt's supporters say they would move to Santorum, while only 22% would go to Romney and 17% to Paul. 

I realize that we've seen this all before. All of the GOP contenders have had their day and once at the top they almost immediately start falling back down. 

I get all that, or maybe this is just the strangest contest we've ever seen and Santorum, being the last candidate standing in this apparently never ending game of "Not-Mitt," will win the nomination for no other reason. 

On the other hand, it's a little surprising that Republican voters took so long to get around to Santorum at a time when conservative bona fides are the order of the day.  Many of us wondered if the Tea Party movement would have enough influence to do for the presidential nomination process what they did for Sharon Angle in Nevada and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware in 2010, which is to pick with their hearts and not with their heads - to pick based on some perverse notion of ideological purity over any chance of winning an election.  

We all assumed that Mitt Romney, with the money of the conservative establishment behind him, would be able to beat back the wacky right, but maybe we were wrong. 

So, while it is true that Rick Santorum's radical social conservatism will make him unattractive to swing voters in the general election and ensure an Obama victory, it might be precisely what is required to win the GOP nomination this time around, as some of the polling data above would suggest. 

Romney and Gingrich are opportunists. Santorum is a true believer, and that is the difference. Much as Mitt and Newt have tried to fake sincerity, it has not been possible. Santorum is the real deal, and I don't mean that in a good way. 

It seems clear that very few pundits, professional or amateur, know what's going to happen with the Republican nomination, having all gotten it wrong so frequently, but there is one thing we do know: when someone as radical as Rick Santorum is doing this well so relatively late, the GOP is in trouble and the intelligent few in their ranks, the ones who really understand politics, know it.  

Main point here is that if the GOP makes the 2012 election about the economy they have a shot. If they make it a culture war, they're done. The Obama campaign could not have built a better candidate from scratch than Rick Santorum to help them frame the general election as a culture war. 

Keep in mind, as well, that even if Romney wins the nomination, he will have had to go step for step with Santorum on the culture war front for longer than it will do him any good.

(Cross-posted at Lippmann's Ghost.)

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