Most pundits don't understand politics. For that matter, many leading conservative activists don't really understand politics. If they had, they would never have written off Rick Santorum as a presidential candidate -- and they wouldn't be rushing, right now, to say that he has no staying power.
In fact, it's really pathetic to think back on how many times conventional wisdom, even conservative conventional wisdom, got things wrong.
Ronald Reagan was too old to be elected president. Then he was certainly too old even to run for, much less win, a second term. Bill Clinton destroyed himself as a national figure with his horrible 1988 Democratic National Convention speech. Republicans couldn't possibly win Congress in 1994 (or ever). Republicans couldn't possibly lose seats in 1998 because the non-presidential party always picks up seats in the sixth year of a president's term. George W. Bush couldn't win in 2000 unless he picked a running mate who was a moderate from a big swing state. Republicans couldn't win the Senate in 2002 because president's parties don't win new congressional majorities in mid-term elections. Nobody really cares about restraining federal spending so Bush was politically right not to worry about it. Barack Obama couldn't possibly beat Hillary Clinton in 2008 (nobody could beat Hillary in 2008). John McCain couldn't possibly win the Republican nomination that year after his campaign team blew up early in 2007. The Tea Parties weren't a real movement but merely Astroturf that would disappear. Rick Perry was a juggernaut who couldn't be stopped this year. Then Newt Gingrich peaked at just the right time and had made this year's campaign into a two-man race with Mitt Romney, with Gingrich the likely victor. Oh, yes: And Rick Santorum never had a chance.
Yeah, right. Tell me another one, Kojak.
As one who has nearly worn out my vocal chords trying to convince conservative leaders for a full year that Santorum had a real shot (and who accepted none of that "wisdom" in the paragraph above except, before the battle was really joined, the bit about Hillary being sure to beat Obama), it always astonishes me how seldom so many smart people actually pay attention to political fundamentals.
For instance: A) In Iowa and New Hampshire especially, personal voter contact matters. Actually, it matters everywhere, if given a chance to matter. Rick Santorum clearly was outworking everybody, and was building the finest grassroots organization in terms of both breadth and depth of actual political skills that has been seen in Iowa since Jimmy Carter put the state on the presidential map in 1976 -- but pundits wrote him off anyway. B) Past performance matters. Rick Santorum has a history of winning races as an underdog, of attracting blue-collar workers, of peaking his election campaigns at just the right time (i.e., right around the day of the election), and of being an effective retail campaigner. C) Context matters in assessing past political performances. If somebody lost, did he lose by bigger or smaller margins than others of his party running in the same state or district at the same time? If somebody won, did he outperform others of his party, or just ride somebody's coat-tails? If somebody lost in a nearly impossible year, does that make him more of a "loser" than somebody who chickened out of running for re-election in that same year? (Can you say "Mitt for Re-Election in Massachusetts? Oh, you mean there never was such a campaign? Gee, what a winner Romney must be!" Not exactly….) The fact is, Rick Santorum has one of the most impressive résumés that we've seen in a long, long time, in terms of being a vote-getter outperforming others similarly situated.
D) How well does somebody actually demonstrate a level of knowledge that will impress voters in the long run? Does he actually know the issues for the race he's running (or is he all Texas hat but no federal cattle, which isn't a character flaw but is a sign of insufficient experience)? Is he likely to be embarrassed by new revelations or reminders of past transgressions? If a candidate has low and/or correctable down-side risks -- as the thoroughly knowledgeable Santorum does -- but a big potential upside (again, Santorum appealing to Iowa's large social-issues contingent and appealing to middle-class voters with his focus on blue-collar economic concerns), then, by golly, the candidate bears watching.
E) Is a candidate who has risen spectacularly in the polls somebody with obvious staying power? This was the question, in retrospect, that so many pundits obviously failed to ask when proclaiming first Perry, and then Gingrich, as the certain "conservative" finalist against Romney. How could they ignore Perry's lack of national-issue experience or his lack of disciplined advance preparation on those subjects? How could they ignore the overwhelmingly obvious fact that nobody had thrown a single political punch at Gingrich in months and that he had a long history of being supremely vulnerable to political punches?
These are just some of the considerations that should always go into political analysis/prognostication. Now, obviously, with so many people writing off Santorum so consistently, his road was a tough one and it was not clear to anybody that he actually would pull off a surge. But it should have been clear that he had as good a chance, if not better, than anybody to do so and to do it at just the right time. It also should have been clear that if he didn't do so, it was just as likely for a new entrant, a Candidate X such as Bobby Jindal or Paul Ryan, to catch fire as it was for either Perry or Gingrich to hold their earlier high positions despite their manifest weaknesses. The Perry and Gingrich stumbles, in short, were eminently foreseeable. The Santorum rise was not inevitable, but either it or a Candidate X should have been obviously at least as feasible, if not more so, than a Perry or Gingrich victory.
Likewise, pundits still write off Santorum in the long run. Are they still not paying attention? Have they not seen that he has diligently built solid organizational bones in New Hampshire and South Carolina even as he worked Iowa like an indefatigable trooper? Have they not seen how fast money flows to a candidate who seems on the rise? Did they not see how Obama and Carter and Dole and Kerry and G.W. Bush all used Iowa success as a springboard to their eventual nominations? Did they not see how Huckabee came within a Fred Thompson last-stand of doing the same thing in 2008? Why should all of these candidates have had staying power after Iowa success, but Rick Santorum not have it? Does he not have a long record of showing major political skills? Or was it just happenstance that he won four elections in a blue-tinged purple district and a blue-tinged purple state and then became the third-ranking Republican in the Senate?
As a purely analytical matter, what I wrote way back in July of 2010 – yes, a year and a half ago -- remains true: "[C]onservatives do themselves and their cause a huge disservice if they don't take a Rick Santorum candidacy seriously. It would be crazy not to acknowledge that the odds seem long. But he has beaten the odds, repeatedly, before, and he knows how to leverage public opinion for conservative ends. 'I'm someone who moves the ball,' he told me. 'I get a lot of stuff done.'"
None of this means Santorum's road to victory will be the slightest bit easy. It is, however, far more likely that he will traverse it successfully than most pundits, even now, will recognize.