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The Santorum Situation

Date posted: Thursday, February 9, 2012

Which issues will bring him the money?

Photograph via Salon

Photograph via Salon

Rick Santorum had an impressive Tuesday, rolling off victories in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado. But he has a long way to go to catch up, and he is not going to be able to. I am not referring here to delegates—it is still possible, albeit very unlikely, that Santorum can win the Republican nomination—but to cash flow.

As of Wednesday night, Santorum had raised $1 million since his victories, $800,000 of which came from online donations. This is impressive, to be sure, but consider that Romney and his PACs spent over $15 million in Florida alone. Romney outspent Newt Gingrich 5-1 in that contest, most of it on attack ads. A stunning 92% of ads run in Florida were negative—one media group called it the “most negative campaign ever.”

Well, now it’s Santorum who can expect the Gingrich treatment from Romney. Santorum had better buckle up. And he had better figure out how to fight back. But what are his options?

Santorum could focus on social issues. This has been his MO for most of his political career. And there has been some speculation that recent events on this front, such as the Susan G. Komen-Planned Parenthood feud and the Obama administration’s decision to require Catholic hospitals and universities to provide insurance coverage for contraception, played a role in Santorum’s success on Tuesday. This is possible, but it seems unlikely. Conservative voters have been told for three years running that Obama is a radical socialist who is a mortal threat to America; did the aforementioned issues really send them running panicked to push the lever for Santorum? To truly scare conservatives at this point, Obama would probably have to propose a Constitutional amendment instituting Sharia law. And even that might not surprise them (hah! we knew it all along!).

And really, short of Obama doing something that crazy, I have trouble believing there is a social issue on which Santorum can beat Obama in the year 2012. This is a man, after all, who does not believe that contraception should be made available. Period. Santorum does not believe it should exist.

Still, in a primary against Romney, creating a wedge on social issues might be effective. But Santorum cannot seem to decide if he should take this angle or not. In his Missouri victory speech he attacked Obama’s contraception decision. The next day, however, Santorum told Fox News that “our numbers were doing much better before this controversy came up. We’ve been talking about jobs and the importance of manufacturing and giving opportunity to people from the very bottom up . . . that’s what got us going across this country.” In his speech, Santorum also said, “I don’t claim to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney.” Yet how can Santorum possibly beat Romney without claiming this? Why wouldn’t he? The argument is there, waiting to be made.

It is difficult to see how Rick Santorum is going to talk about the economy more effectively than Mitt Romney. Santorum can hope that the economy drastically improves—this would prove disastrous for any Republican in a general election, but in the primary would eliminate Romney’s signature talking point. But in the meantime, Santorum needs to draw a starker contrast between himself and Romney. He may need to go negative. Santorum has for the most part abstained from running a negative campaign. But he didn’t hesitate to get nasty when his back was up against the wall in his unsuccessful 2006 Senate reelection campaign in Pennsylvania.

Of course, going negative is not without risk. Consider that for much of this campaign, Mitt Romney has appeared to be the grown-up in the sandbox (granted, not a difficult look to achieve when Donald Trump, Herman Cain, and Michele Bachmann are present). But when Romney was forced to go negative in Florida, it was Santorum who came out looking mature in response while Gingrich and Romney squabbled. Though of course no one factor explains Santorum’s success on Tuesday, this seems a more plausible explanation for his rise than conservative voters freaking out about Planned Parenthood or Obama’s contraception decision.

Thus his conundrum. Santorum wants to look stately and presidential; if he goes negative, voters might respond, well, negatively. But how else on earth is he supposed to compete with Romney’s massive cash advantage?

Santorum ought to cut the nice-guy-in-a-sweater-vest act and start throwing around whatever weight he can. Rest assured, that’s what Romney is about to do.

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Ben Hoffman was a Teach For America corps member in Washington, D.C., where he also worked for several think tanks. He now lives in North Carolina, where he teaches and writes. He tweets @benrhoffman.

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