View from Australia: The other guy

By Jonathan Bradley

This past weekend, I watched a movie about an earnest and diffident Midwesterner, partial to wearing sweater vests, who left his home town for a big event in Iowa, and discovered the experience to be a life-changing one.

No, Rick Santorum isn't yet the subject of a biopic. The film I watched was a low-key comedy from last year called Cedar Rapids, which stars "Daily Show" alumnus Ed Helms as Tim Lippe, an insurance salesman oddly reminiscent of Santorum. (The similarity was surely coincidental.) Helms's character is a small town naif and small-c conservative so ill-suited to the big time that he regards the small Iowa city of Cedar Rapids as if it were a dangerous metropolis.

Ed Helms as Tim Lippe in Cedar Rapids

Ed Helms. (Not Rick Santorum)

I suspect Rick Santorum has found the success he has because Republican voters admire his unassuming Midwestern decency and his traditional values. He has more in common with Tim Lippe than choice of knitwear. At the end of Cedar Rapids, Lippe left Iowa ready to embark on a bright future in the insurance business. When Rick Santorum left Iowa after winning the state's caucuses this past January, he seemed ready to break free from the anonymity that had characterised his campaign thus far and establish a bright future of his own.

It didn't really work out like that, however. Here's what I said about Santorum just before his Iowa victory:

Rick Santorum might turn out to be another Cain, Bachmann, or Gingrich — a passing fancy of a party struggling to come to terms with the fact that its only real standard bearer is Romney. But ... Santorum has solid social conservative credentials, and he fits within the worldview of the American right, though some members of the Republican base think he's too moderate on economic issues. He has a few other things working against him as well: His 2006 electoral defeat gave him a reputation for being unpopular. Would a victory in Iowa work to erase that? Considering the recency of his surge, he has not received the media scrutiny other Republicans have. But are his flaws fatal? And though he has expended a lot of energy in Iowa, Santorum has almost no campaign infrastructure established outside the state. Even if he can convert a good result this evening into endorsements and donations, could he get himself set up in New Hampshire and South Carolina quickly enough to maintain his momentum?

The answer, it turned out, was "no." All he really managed to do was tread water while other candidates dropped out of the race. And even though he added a few more caucus victories to his total last week — in Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota — he still faces the same problems he did after Iowa. He now has just one real opponent, Mitt Romney, but he's as underfunded as ever. Despite his solid conservative credentials, he hasn't been able to attract big name endorsements either, which would be an indicator that he is able to attract the broad-based institutional support required for candidates to garner votes on a national scale. His social conservatism might please the Republican base, but most Americans see it as, at best, rather odd. He seems to do best when he's been out of the public eye for a while, away from media scrutiny and opposition attacks. For all these reasons, Mitt Romney is still the overwhelming favourite.

There are two reasons, however, Santorum is still worthy of any consideration, in a way that Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul are not. Steve Kornacki gives the first:

[T]here’s one key difference between Santorum and the others who’ve vied with Romney for the lead this year: He’s a genuinely competent candidate. Not dazzling, but competent. He’s in line with the party base on just about every key issue, doesn’t have much personal baggage, can think on his feet in debates, and deliver a solid stump speech. This is more than can be said for Gingrich, Rick Perry and Herman Cain. This may be Santorum’s best hope: that the desire of the party base to nominate someone other than Romney is so strong that this basic competency is enough to overcome all of the advantages that Romney still enjoys.

The second comes from polls showing Santorum in the lead in Michigan, which will hold its primary on February 28. (Santorum has also topped some national polls, but these are less meaningful, because there is no occasion in the nomination contest on which the entire nation votes all at once.) This is a lead that could collapse under the weight of press attention and Romney dollars, but it is cause for concern for the Romney campaign. Michigan is supposed to be an easy win for Romney: he grew up there, and his father George once served as the state's governor. If Santorum won in Michigan, it would greatly enhance Republican fears that Romney is unpalatable to Midwestern voters, who would still not have given him a single victory in the region, and that he cannot appeal to the working class. That doesn't mean Romney would lose, but it would give any Republicans uncertain about him an excuse to take a good look at Santorum. Romney does not want to give them that excuse.

So this is where Rick Santorum stands now. He remains a contender because he meets the minimum expectations of a serious candidate. He has won some states and earned some delegates, but these have kept him in the hunt — they don't really make him competitive in any sense. But he has a shot, in the form of Michigan, to improve his fortunes and start seriously eroding Romney's dominance.

That's not much, but it's something. A dramatic come-from-behind victory, however, is unlikely outside of Hollywood. Santorum's plot will probably echo that of Tim Lippe's in Cedar Rapids: He'll have some eye-opening experiences, but find himself returning to Midwestern obscurity after it's all over.

16 February 2012