The road to underdog Rick Santorum’s improbable journey to becoming the Republican nominee for President of the United States runs right through favorite Mitt Romney’s “home” state.
On February 28th the state of Michigan will hold its primary, and if polling which currently has Santorum surging to a double-digit lead there proves to be prophetic, then Santorum will simultaneously deliver a mortal wound to Romney’s candidacy while also taking a giant step towards eventually securing the nomination for himself.
Throughout this process it has become clear that with no alternative to Romney who is both viable and without fatal flaws; conservatives have been sifting through the potential standard-bearers in an effort to separate the pretenders from the contenders. This has led to the so-called “flavor of the month” phenomenon, with various candidates rising only to fall once it became obvious they couldn’t stand up to the scrutiny that goes along with being a frontrunner.
Santorum never really got his one shining moment following his win in the Iowa Caucuses because of the delay in formally certifying his victory, but after his three-state sweep of Minnesota, Missouri, and Colorado he’s riding high at the moment. Newt Gingrich experienced a similar high after trouncing Romney in South Carolina, but that high was nullified by Romney’s blowout victory in Florida just a week later.
However, Santorum’s timing for a surge couldn’t be better. With basically three weeks between his big night and the next real contest, he gets several news cycles of earned media to feed the perception he’s now the not-Mitt-Romney-candidate that Gingrich never got when he had to jump right back into the horse race. Santorum now also has time to raise money and put forth an elbow-grease campaign in a state like Michigan, which should be receptive to his family values and manufacturing message.
A Santorum win in Michigan would be a devastating blow to Romney’s candidacy he likely would not be able to recover from for several reasons.
First of all, Gingrich had already punctured Romney’s inevitability balloon in South Carolina, where Romney was banking on winning to all but cinch the perception the race was over. Gingrich’s win in South Carolina emboldened conservatives that Romney was indeed vulnerable. And Romney and the party establishment’s scorched earth tactics to win Florida just fanned the flames of conservative discontent, just as I predicted it would afterwards.
Next, Romney is paying the price for basing his candidacy on the perception-driven notion of “electability” and not on substantive issues. You live by electability, you die by electability. When your mission statement is it doesn’t matter what you believe if you can’t win, then you better win and win a lot. Romney isn’t, and his record when his name is on the ballot is now a pathetic 8 wins and 22 losses.
Herein lies the danger of basing your campaign on electability perceptions and not your policy positions. When Romney is doing well, the perception overstates his strength as a frontrunner. When Romney struggles, the perception overstates his weakness. Both perceptions are flawed as perceptions usually are, but in this game perception becomes reality nonetheless. Because his campaign is solely driven by the perception of his momentum (or lack thereof) and not the issues that drive conservatives to vote, now that Romney has lost several states he was expected to win he no longer controls his own destiny and is at the mercy of a perception he can no longer manage. Just winning isn’t good enough for Romney, but he has to win big. Conservatives don’t want Romney, so he never gets to be the comeback kid or the feel-good story. He’s either the bully you can’t beat, or the bully you love to beat up.
Either way, Romney loses because he’s seen as someone you’re stuck with or someone you want to stick it to. Neither rallies conservatives to Romney’s side, and Republicans don’t win presidential elections without nominees that rally their base (see 1976, 1992, 1996, and 2008).
Finally, a Santorum victory in Romney’s perceived “home” state where his father was governor, he still maintains strong ties to this day, and where Romney won convincingly in the 2008 primary, would be impossible for Romney to spin as anything other than a repudiation of his candidacy. If Romney can’t beat the anemically-funded Santorum by comparison where he has favorite son status, then it’s hard for him to make the case he can do it over the long haul.
After winning Michigan, Santorum could also coalesce all but Gingrich’s most loyal supporters behind him to become the true conservative not-Romney the remainder of the race. Romney’s hope all along was to avoid a one-on-one showdown with a fractured conservative base, or at least until he was so far out in front that it didn’t matter. On the other hand, heading into an already skeptical socially conservative south on Super Tuesday off a loss in one of his home states is a worst-case scenario for the Romney campaign. Romney would essentially find himself in the same position he was in after losing Florida to McCain in 2008—not yet out but essentially down for the count.
The media is missing all of this because it has wrongly focused on personalities and not the real issue for conservatives, which isn’t so much who the alternative to Romney is but having one.
Between Gingrich’s private life and Santorum’s big government Senate votes, grassroots conservatives have come to grips with the fact the true champion they were looking for wasn’t in this race. At that point the race transitioned to who could be used as a weapon to defeat Romney, who conservatives see as the malleable proxy for the party establishment they loathe.
In South Carolina, it appeared that Gingrich was the weapon. Now, it appears it is Santorum. However, if Santorum doesn’t close the sale in Michigan his window of opportunity will likely close. The door will then open yet again for a southerner like Gingrich to emerge once and for all as the not-Romney-candidate—just in time for a southern fried Super Tuesday. However, Gingrich (my preferred candidate) doesn’t control his fate, either. He must now wait-and-see if Santorum will become a shooting star or go supernova.
Michigan is likely Santorum’s one and only chance to win the nomination, but it’s a better chance than anybody gave him as recently as two weeks ago.