There were practical, nuts-and-bolts reasons behind former Sen. Rick Santorum's sweep of Tuesday night's presidential nominating contests. But his wins in Minnesota and Colorado caucuses, and the Missouri "beauty contest" primary (with no delegates at stake), also could be linked to the rising importance of social and cultural issues both in our daily news and the political process.
First, the nuts and bolts.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his managers must be faulted for taking Tuesday (Feb. 8) too greatly for granted. Romney had come off big victories in the Florida primary and Nevada caucuses. He began, after Nevada, referring to himself as "the man who will be the Republican nominee" rather than asking audiences to "help me become the Republican nominee." Voters resent that kind of presumptions when they are still making their choices.
Moreover, Santorum had campaigned actively in all three states while Romney gave them only a quick brush. There was reason to skip Missouri, since no delegates were at stake there. Romney had carried both Minnesota and Colorado in his 2008 presidential-nominating campaign against Sen. John McCain. But polling data at the end of last week showed Santorum leading him slightly in both states. Romney took Sunday as a campaign rest day while his competitors did not. Then, on Monday, he spent time only in Colorado.
Voters in party caucuses are not casual voters. They take issues seriously and cannot be courted from a distance or via a media campaign. They want to see and talk with the candidates themselves. They sent Romney a message, in Minnesota in particular, by presenting him with a third-place finish behind both Santorum and Rep. Ron Paul.
Santorum also benefited from his base among evangelical voters and opponents of abortion, the same base that brought him victory in the Iowa caucuses (as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee four years before). Paul got his usual support from libertarian and isolationist voters, strong in Minnesota but less important in Colorado.
Week-long caucuses will end Saturday in Maine. Romney has not spent as much time and effort there as either Santorum or Paul.
This could be the one state where Paul emerges in first place. Then comes a long period until the Arizona and Michigan primaries at the end of this month. Romney is favored to win both contests. Arizona has a large Republican Mormon population. Michigan is the place where Romney was born and where his father was a highly popular governor. If he fails to carry both states, and Santorum does well, Romney no longer will be seen as his party's inevitable nominee. As of now, however, he holds a strong delegate lead over his competitors and has more money and a better organization than anyone else.
Romney's managers' fumbling also could be seen in their tactic of running negative ads about Santorum at the moment he began getting traction in Minnesota and Colorado. It was an entirely appropriate tactic for Romney to run negative advertising against former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had serious political baggage that was largely unknown to many voters entering the primary season. And Romney's ads were entirely factual, hardly the "lies" that Gingrich branded them.
Santorum also carries previously unnoted political baggage. But, in contrast to the bombastic, nasty Gingrich, he comes across to voters as a nice guy. Frontal attacks on him likely will diminish Romney more than they will hurt Santorum. Romney's managers seem not to realize this.
Surrogates, rather than Romney himself, should point out Santorum's weaknesses. There also will be an opportunity for Romney to do so, in a respectul and factual way, in the nationally-televised TV debate a week ahead of the Arizona and Michigan contests. (For those who wonder, Santorum's vulnerabilities include his numerous senatorial earmarks; sometimes eccentric Senate votes; one-sided defeat in his last Pennsylvania Senate campaign; and, as Newsweek magazine recently related, his wife's long relationship with and work for an abortion-clinic operator prior to her marriage to Santorum).
Now, the changing political climate.
A series of recent events have pushed to the foreground social and cultural issues that will animate conservative voters in Republican primaries and caucuses. Many are the same voters who have harbored doubts about Romney as "a Massachusetts moderate."
Romney already has had difficulty with these voters because his Massachusetts Romneycare health plan bore a strong resemblance to the Obamacare plan they despise. Now they are energized by the appeals-court decision overriding the California law against same-sex marriage; the administration regulations requiring Catholic institutions to provide birth-control assistance; the Komen Foundation's changing posture toward grants to Planned Parenthood; and the efforts in many places, including Washington state, to legalize gay marriage. Santorum's Catholicism, anti-abortion stance, and "family-values" emphasis all appeal to these voters, who are the most committed and animated in many states' nominating processes.
Gingrich, as noted earlier, continues to fade. Paul has a defined constituency that will stick with him right through the GOP national convention, but it will amount to perhaps 10-15 percent of the delegates — enough to influence the party platform and qualify him for a podium speech but no more.
The recent ascendancy of cultural and social issues is good news for Santorum but, in the larger picture, bad news for the Republican Party. After its 2010 takeover of the House of Representatives, it has been poised to gain control of the Senate in 2012 and, if the economy continues weak, to win the presidency as well.
All of that could be lost to Republicans with a Santorum candidacy based principally on polarizing social issues. Independent and many Democratic voters, especially so-called Reagan Democrats, are also unsettled by sometimes jarring cultural and social change. But, as they cast November votes, they will be looking principally for leadership focused on creating economic growth and keeping the country safe — always the deciders as voters choose their president.