History, we are assured, is written by the winners. But when it comes to American presidential politics, the losers have plenty of say.
Rick Santorum’s exit from the Republican presidential contest cleared the way for Mitt Romney to win the party’s nomination. But over the course of a low-budget campaign that relied almost entirely on volunteers and was met with disdain by the GOP establishment, Santorum won more than 3 million votes and 11 state primaries – the most by a conservative insurgent candidate since Ronald Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford in 1976.
Santorum has been denounced as a sore loser, a religious extremist, a crank. MSNBC host Martin Bashir referred to him as a theocratic version of Stalin. One columnist alleged in the Daily Beast that Santorum would use the power of the presidency to impose “his ideal of a Christian America” on the nation. The New Yorker compared him to Islamic extremists who seek to execute their opponent s, adding that we need separation of church and state so that “Santorum and his party can’t impose dominion of one narrow, sectarian, Bible-based idea of the public good.”
But Santorum and his supporters may have the last laugh. From John C. Fremont to William Jennings Bryan in the 19th century to Barry Goldwater, Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern and Ronald Reagan in our time, losing presidential candidates have previewed the ideological trajectory of their parties – and often of the nation.
Romney would be wise to remember this in his general-election campaign. Of course he can’t neglect independents, or women, or Hispanics, or other nontraditional Republican constituencies. But his immediate task is to consolidate conservative support and unify the party. The best way to do that is to appropriate the best parts of Santorum’s message.
Santorum follows the trailblazing evangelical candidates Pat Robertson and Mike Huckabee, who personified the rise and the maturation of social conservatives as a critical component of the Republican coalition.
In the Democratic Party, Howard Dean – his candidacy fueled by fiery online enthusiasm for his antiwar views – signaled the decline of the centrist New Democrats, foreshadowing the emergence four years later of a freshman U.S. senator from Illinois named Barack Obama. Today Obama governs as the most left-of-center president in history, while the Democratic Leadership Council is shuttered .
In the primaries, Santorum outperformed Romney among two key demographic groups, one religious and cultural, the other socioeconomic – and Romney needs both to win in November.
The first group was evangelicals and tea party voters; there is remarkable overlap between them. According to the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s analysis of network exit polls, more than half of voters who cast a ballot in a Republican presidential primary or caucus through mid-March were self-identified evangelicals. In 2008, they made up 23 percent of all voters in the general election. Romney will need them to turn out in even larger numbers to defeat Obama. (He already has a running start; Romney won almost a third of the evangelical vote during the primaries, and a majority of tea party voters in Florida and other critical states.)
The Republican presidential contest has been incorrectly depicted as a battle between Romney’s economy-focused message and Santorum’s emphasis on social issues and family values. That is a false dichotomy. Social scientists have long noted the social pathologies that underlie chronic poverty. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, for instance, more than half of Americans living in extreme poverty are children in households headed by a single parent.
This link between economic and social policy was a unique theme of Santorum’s campaign, an innovation that broadened his appeal. On the stump, he often cited a 2009 Brookings Institution study that found that Americans who failed to complete high school, did not work full time and had children out of wedlock had a 76 percent chance of living in poverty. By contrast, those who earned a high school diploma, had a full-time job and waited until marriage to have kids had only a 2 percent chance of living in poverty.
There is no way to restore America’s economic prosperity, Santorum argued, without strengthening marriage and family. “It’s a huge, huge opportunity for us,” he said when he described the findings in a January presidential debate in South Carolina, drawing big applause from the crowd.
He must also avoid retreating from his defense of unborn life, the institution of marriage and the right of religious organizations and charities to be free from the Obamacare mandate governing their health-care coverage. Otherwise, he will confirm the worst fears of those faith-based voters who wonder if his positions are based on convenience, not conviction. He need not lead with these issues, but when they arise, he should lean into them and forthrightly state his views. (Think John McCain at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Civil Forum in 2008.)
As he works to close the gender gap with Obama, Romney and his team must keep in mind that the largest chasm in the electorate is actually the “marriage gap,” in which Republican presidential candidates have historically won married voters with children by wide margins. As amply demonstrated by the kerfuffle this past week over a liberal pundit’s comments about women who work at home, the gender gap can be narrowed by appealing to women who value their time with family and children as much as they value their careers outside the home.
The second group with which Santorum performed extremely well was voters who did not graduate from college and who earn less than $100,000 a year. Working-class voters in battleground states such as Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa will be a key vulnerability for Obama in the general election. Romney needs them. Carrying only college-educated voters making more than $100,000 a year is a recipe for electoral death for the Grand Old Party.
Predicting vice presidential selections is a little like playing fantasy football on a Ouija board. But whether it is Marco Rubio, Nikki Haley, Paul Ryan, Mike Huckabee or yes, even Rick Santorum, Romney would be wise to select a well-qualified running mate who can energize evangelicals, faithful Roman Catholics and conservatives, while also appealing to women and independents.
His choice will be subjected to an all-out assault — just ask Dan Quayle, Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin. But adding a compelling running mate who can help drive a winning message about economic prosperity and stronger families would serve Romney well in his battle against Obama’s well-funded attack machine.
Ralph Reed is the founder and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.