What happened yesterday in Pennsylvania wasn’t just the end of Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign. It was the conclusion of a year-long battle between the Republican establishment and disaffected conservatives, which culminated in the collective failure of the candidates to the right of Mitt Romney to deny him the nomination.
It’s a familiar ending. Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, and John McCain all beat back conservative insurgents to win the Republican nomination. Only the elder Bush went on to win the White House, and then only once. Had New Hampshire independents not swooned for McCain in 2000, George W. Bush would have found himself quelling a conservative insurrection led by Steve Forbes. The story is as old as Tom Dewey and Dwight Eisenhower defeating Robert Taft.
Movement conservatives have captured the Republican nomination during a competitive primary process only twice: Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Ronald Reagan in 1980. After Reagan won two terms as president — by landslide margins both times — many assumed the conservative takeover of the GOP was complete.
These assumptions proved ill founded. In 1988, many conservatives rallied behind Bush senior as Reagan’s loyal vice president and heir apparent. Those who still preferred bold colors to pale pastels split between different variants of conservatism: religious conservatives for Pat Robertson, supply-siders for Jack Kemp, and a smattering of conservatives who for various reasons liked Dole, Pete DuPont, and Alexander Haig.
Bush won the nomination and the presidency, dispatching a smug, diminutive liberal governor from Massachusetts who seemed to think the country longed for a return to the malaise of the Carter years. But it was a Pyrrhic victory, as Bush soon broke conservatives’ hearts: he raised taxes, rescued racial quotas, and presided over a slow erosion of the gains from the Reagan years. By 1993, the Democrats once again controlled both elected branches of the federal government.
In 1996, conservatives again split. Some were resigned to Dole. Economic conservatives liked Phil Gramm, social conservatives were for Pat Buchanan, supply-siders were attracted to the Forbes flat tax plan. The right made its stand against Dole in the early states but the race was over by Super Tuesday.
Four years ago, national security hawks joined establishment Republicans in supporting McCain. Evangelicals flocked to Mike Huckabee while other movement conservatives split their votes between Romney and Fred Thompson. This time the primary campaign was effectively over after Florida.
This year the race continued past Super Tuesday. If Santorum had held on in Pennsylvania on April 24, it might have been June before Romney clinched. Santorum had many disadvantages: he was a Northeastern Catholic most popular with Southern evangelicals (with Newt Gingrich still in the race), an ex-senator who hadn’t won an election in twelve years, an underfunded candidate who was vulnerable to being outspent 4 or 5-1, the leader of a campaign organization more appropriate for his previous status as an asterisk candidate.
Yet if Santorum had done just a bit better in Michigan and Ohio, we could be having a very different discussion right now. Santorum showed future conservative contenders how to go hunting where the ducks are. As the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat observed, a Republican like Bobby Jindal could take the Santorum coalition — Southerners, Midwesterners, evangelicals, Catholics, and Reagan Democrats — and build on it.
One way to build on this is to do better among these groups than Santorum did. For example, Santorum lost Catholics — his coreligionists — in Ohio (by thirteen points) and Michigan (by seven). He needed a stronger showing in the Midwestern primaries and caucuses, where he had mixed results.
Alternatively, imagine a candidate — a Kentucky senator, perhaps — who could hold onto the Ron Paul vote while reaching more deeply into the Republican base. A presidential contender who could win more evangelicals, more older voters, and more partisan Republicans while still putting up big numbers among the independents and young.
That combination could have won Iowa this time around. It also would have potentially made for a more competitive New Hampshire primary, marrying votes for Paul and Jon Huntsman to the Santorum and Gingrich voters. This hypothetical campaign wouldn’t be dead on arrival in the South or closed primary states.
Perhaps the Pauls aren’t your cup of tea, even when served cool. That is something a Tea Party candidate for the presidential nomination will have to resolve early because a divided conservative vote spells doom for a conservative insurgent. Imagine if the same candidate had won Iowa and South Carolina.
Conservative primary voters are more discriminating than ever, looking seriously at the flaws of old heroes like Gingrich and new saviors like Rick Perry. They are more willing to keep the primary contest going than before. All they need is a candidate to lead them.
What if that candidate, come 2016 or 2020, is a current rather than former elected official? Someone with no votes for Medicare Part D or No Child Left Behind in his record? Someone who has governed, without tax increases or TARP bailouts? The bench will not be as depleted from the Bush years next time.
By winning 11 primaries and caucuses, Rick Santorum was the most successful conservative insurgent since Ronald Reagan in 1976. But that still isn’t good enough. The right is seeking to emulate Reagan in 1980 instead.