Did Rick Santorum Blow It In Michigan?

Rick Santorum's inability to stay away from the culture wars may have been his undoing.

Politics is a cruel mistress. Three weeks ago, Rick Santorum was fresh off convincing wins in three states, rising in the national polls, and out of nowhere was leading Mitt Romney by double digits in his home state of Michigan. Once again, the talk of new candidates entering the race, and signs of panic from leading Republicans, were all over the news.  Even after a fairly strong debate performance, the Romney campaign seemed to be floundering and the candidate continued on his grand tradition of verbal gaffes that tended to reinforce the idea that he was out of touch. At the same time, though Rick Santorum seemed to be getting distracted himself. Instead of sticking to the economic message that had served him so well in Iowa, and which seemed tailor made for a state like Michigan, he was talking about culture war issues like contraception and saying that President Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech on religion and politics made him want to vomit. Had he stuck to an economic message, one wonders what might have happened.

E.J. Dionne doesn’t wonder at all, and argues that Santorum blew it by bringing out his inner culture warrior:

Rick Santorum’s speech after the Michigan primary Tuesday night was the longest apology to working women and college graduates in the history of political campaigns — partly because no candidate has had to apologize to working women and college graduates before. Santorum went on and on about his professional mom and his professional wife and spoke with respect for their work outside as well as inside the home. It’s always said that first you have to recognize your problem, so Santorum took a big step tonight.

(…)

But was it too late? Mitt Romney survived. His margin in Michigan was thin and exit polls showed he continued to have problems with the staunchest conservatives and evangelical Christians. But he won the race he had to win. Had he lost tonight, his campaign would have imploded.

And that shows what a lost opportunity Michigan was for Santorum. He had a real chance of winning Michigan and throwing Romney’s campaign into chaos. He went ahead in the polls after his trifecta of victories in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado. But he couldn’t close the deal. And women were the key to his defeat. The two candidates ran close to even among men; most of Romney’s margin came from women. A victory tonight would have established Santorum as the unquestioned leader of the Republican right. Now, he will have to continue to fight to fend off Newt Gingrich for that honor.

Dionne has a good point here. A win in Michigan, even by a narrow margin, would have been a huge psychic boost for Santorum’s shoestring campaign (the Santorum campaign has no national office, for example) going into Super Tuesday and the March primaries. Dionne is also correct that women were significant part of Santorum’s loss last night. According to the exit polls, Santorum lost women in Michigan by 5 points and by 17 points in Arizona. Looking specifically at Michigan, Patricia Murphy argues that Santorum has nobody to blame but himself for his troubles:

Santorum’s loss came after weeks of talking about issues that did him no favors with the moderate and independent women who voted Tuesday, including his past statements that working women had been convinced by “radical feminists” that working outside the home is the only route to happiness, that Barack Obama is a “snob” for advocating that high-school students go on to postgraduate training or college, and his opposition to contraception and abortion under any circumstances.

Although Santorum has insisted that his religious beliefs about contraception would not influence public policy, he argued Sunday that the Founders never intended a complete separation of church and state, especially on questions of morality—not an easy sell to the 39 percent of voters Tuesday who said they were moderate or liberal.

How different might things have been had Rick Santorum campaigned in Michigan the way he had in Iowa, where he stuck to a large degree to a working class message that he abandoned for some reason the moment he won Iowa. Given the economic climate in the Wolverine State, there’s every reason to believe that it’s a message that would have been received far better than the culture war nonsense. Instead of going there, however, Santorum responded to his rise in the polls over the past three weeks by becoming exactly what his critics on the left and the right have always said he was, an intolerant spokesperson for the most intolerant branch of social conservatism. Even if that managed to only turn off a small percentage of Michigan voters, it was probably enough to cost him a victory that would have changed the tenor of this race forever.

Instead, he came in second. Yes, he can claim that he came within three percentage points of Mitt Romney in his home state, and he’ll walk away with some delegates from Michigan, but as far as the long-term goes this was not a development that was in Santorum’s best interests. Now, we move on to Super Tuesday. Santorum is likely to pick up a win or two there — Oklahoma and Tennessee seem to be his best chances right now, and he’s competitive with Newt Gingrich in Georgia — but the big battleground for the next week will be Ohio. Right now, Santorum is leading in the polls in the Buckeye State but those numbers are likely to tighten in response to the outcome in Michigan. Additionally, the Romney campaign’s superior organization and superior money will likely benefit it greatly in a state the size of Ohio where having a presence in at least five media markets (Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Dayton, and Toledo) is a must. More importantly, though, even if Santorum gets the most votes in Ohio, he’s unlikely to get the most delegates:

All six major GOP candidates have been certified and will appear on the Ohio ballot, according to a list released by the Ohio secretary of state’s office today. But Rick Santorum, the release said, did not file delegates in the 6th, 9th or 13th congressional districts — and loses his chance at getting any delegates in those districts.

Forty-eight of the state’s 66 delegates are awarded proportionally based on the vote in each congressional district — three per district — and the remaining 18 delegates are awarded based on the at-large vote statewide. That means that while Santorum can get votes toward the at-large total in those three districts, he has no shot at taking a share of the nine total delegates those districts will award.

And in Virginia, of course, Santorum isn’t even on the ballot so there’s another 49 delegates that he won’t even be able to get a few of. A month from now, we may be looking back on Michigan as the moment that the Santorum campaign, such as it is, reached its zenith. If that’s the case, then the candidate’s own inability to stay on a message that could well have resounded with the state’s blue collar voters is going to be the main reason why he failed.

 

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. legion says:

    Basically, the GOP gets to choose between someone who’s too dense to soften his extreme views even a little bit – even when he’s addressing the very people his views insult (like women, college students, etc) and someone who alters his extreme views every single speech in a desperate attempt not to offend anyone.

    You realize, of course, that either of these incompetents would be an existential disaster for the US if they were ever to actually stumble into the Oval Office, right?

  2. rodney dill says:

    Pie Jesu Domine (THWACK)
    Donna eis Santorum (THWACK)

  3. There was an almost comical moment at the last debate where the moderator asked a question about contraception, and Romney, Gingrich, and Paul all gave a rambling answer about how this wasn’t what people wanted to talk about and how the economy was more important in a way that almost came a cross like they were talking Santorum, rather than the audience, in a desperate attempt to keep him from taking the bait.

    Poor Ricky just couldn’t help himself though and jumped right on the landmine, despite the entire rest of the field doing everything but flat out saying “Santorum, you don’t need to answer that question and as your lawyer I advise you to remain silent” to save him from himself.

  4. c.red says:

    Santorum pivotted off economics because economics are hard and there is too much of a chance he could say the wrong thing. Besides, the economy is largely doing what it is supposed to; making rich people rich and keeping everyone else comfortable enough that they aren’t complaining too loudly (at least for a Republican).

    He is far more interested in making sure everyone is living correctly (in God’s eyes) and saving their souls, real world not withstanding. He is pretty much the living embodiment of the current Republican party.

  5. Brummagem Joe says:

    It probably did but then on the other hand maybe his religiosity was also effective in boosting his turnout amongst the church crowd. His entire candidacy is bizarre to me and reminds one of Dr Johnson’s comment about women preaching.

  6. Franklin says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Heh, I must’ve missed that part … it would have been amusing to watch.

  7. Rob in CT says:

    Inability to stay away… well yeah, the Culture War stuff is all he has.

  8. gVOR08 says:

    Richard Cardinal Santorum ended up campaigning against college education, John Kennedy, and sex. He still got 38% of the vote in MI. Republicans must really hate Mitt Romney.

  9. Patrick says:

    Rick Sanatorium, one of the finest minds of the 13th century.

  10. JohnMcC says:

    Very interesting exit polling in the USAToday and CBSNews this morning. Only 32% of the voters thought Mr Romney could beat Barack but of those people, 24% still voted for Mr Santorum. It is as if the gesture of voting as far to the right as possible was more rewarding to them. But on the other hand people who ‘support’ the TeaParty almost exactly split their vote (42% Romney, 41% Santorum).

    There were more self-described “liberal/moderate” voters (39%) than “very conservative” ones (30%). But of the “lib/mod” group, 50% voted for either Mr Paul or Mr Santorum while only 39% picked Mr Romney.

    I’m not sure that we who view these elections through lenses of ideology and policy can really wrap our heads around the ways that people vote. I think the economic and cultural breakdowns are more enlightening. High School graduates (or less) went Santorum by 6% but college grad/post grad voters chose Romney by 8%. Total Family Income was also determinant: Santorum carried voters who selected “under $50K” by 36–41% but “over $200K” selected Romney 55–28%. Union members went strongly for Santorum, probably strongly related to total income. Evangelicals also went strongly to Santorum. The likelihood of a voter choosing Santorum went up as the population of his hometown declined.

    Voters don’t see this the way we tend to do.

  11. Dawson says:

    The US has some major problems that candidates need to address:
    Parents that have children and then abandon them to relatives, friends, neighbors, or anyone.
    Violence and abuse aimed toward women and children: look at the increasing number of shelters for the abused – wierd, ridiculousl!
    Obscene salaries of “professional athletes” and “entertainers” that are beyond our imagination.
    CEO’s who lay off workers while collecting millions in bonuses.
    Judges who show more concern for criminals than the suffering of their victims.
    Corporations that gouge the public as they raise prices on needed staples: gasoline, food, drinks.
    (and the investors that drive up the price of gas – let them invest in GM or pork bellies)
    Elected officials who have no shame and openly carry on affairs while married.
    This is not some sort of religious statement, even though most religious groups would agree my above statements and that this country is in a decline morally while values have gone out the window. Our leaders need to speak honestly and openly to the American people about this.