Rick Santorum, Republican Frontrunner

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 7 2013 9:50 AM

Rick Santorum, Republican Frontrunner

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Rick Santorum's message to working-class voters: Benghazi! Abortion! Gun control!

Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/GettyImages

In Collision 2012, his new book about the last presidential campaign, Dan Balz remembers scoring an early pre-primary interview with Rick Santorum. The former senator, who didn't poll above 2 points in the first primary states, told Balz how he could win the nomination. The reporter makes a confession to his readers: "I took no notes."

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

That was how dismissive the press was toward Rick Santorum in 2012. Byron York, to his credit, takes Santorum seriously enough to interview him at length before the candidate heads to Iowa for three days of campaign stops. (Yes, campaign stops. Please don't judge him, as I am also heading to Iowa this weekend.) Santorum is only polling in fifth or sixth place among possible candidates in Iowa, but the media underestimated him last time, and York won't. So the headline asks why Santorum isn't the "frontrunner" for 2016.

Santorum believes in the theory that missing white working class voters stayed home, and thus denied a win to Romney. (He doesn't say "white," but that's the going theory.) "What were the votes we needed in Ohio? What were the votes we needed in Michigan? They were the guys that I connected with — who stayed home." This is a popular explanation for the 2012 loss; even though Mitt Romney won 1 million more votes overall than John McCain did, he won merely 70,000 more votes in Michigan, and won 10,000 less in Ohio.

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How would Santorum have improved upon that? York says his answer "hints at a different way for GOP candidates to campaign." Here's what I'll do: I'll excerpt part of Santorum's answer, then excerpt something Mitt Romney said.

Santorum:

First, you have to emphasize that the free market system in America is the best creator of wealth and opportunity in the history of the world. We have to be committed to that. You absolutely have to emphasize the goodness of that capitalist system.

Romney in his nomination speech:

Business and growing jobs is about taking risk, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding, but always striving. It's about dreams. Usually it doesn't work out exactly as you might have imagined. Steve Jobs was fired at Apple, and then he came back and changed the world. It's the genius of the American free enterprise system to harness the extraordinary creativity, and talent and industry of the American people with a system that's dedicated to creating tomorrow's prosperity, not trying to redistribute today's.

Santorum:

Second, you have to emphasize the faults of the capitalist system, which is it doesn’t necessarily mean that all boats are going to rise, as some have suggested.

Romney at the first debate:

Look, we have to have regulation on Wall Street. That's why I'd have regulation. But I wouldn't designate five banks as too big to fail and give them a blank check. That's one of the unintended consequences of Dodd-Frank. It wasn't thought through properly. We need to get rid of that provision because it's killing regional and small banks. They're getting hurt.

Santorum:

If your boat has a hole in it, it’s not going to rise, and so you have to talk about what can we do for people who have holes in their boats. And you know what? In America today, that’s a lot of folks. They have all sorts of issues that they have to overcome to be successful. Whether it’s family issues, whether its physical or mental health issues, whether it’s skills issues, education issues — all of us have holes, right?

Romney at that debate:

I'm not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people. High-income people are doing just fine in this economy. They'll do fine whether you're president or I am. The people who are having the hard time right now are middle- income Americans. Under the president's policies, middle-income Americans have been buried. They're just being crushed. Middle- income Americans have seen their income come down by $4,300. This is a -- this is a tax in and of itself. I'll call it the economy tax. It's been crushing. At the same time, gasoline prices have doubled under the president. Electric rates are up. Food prices are up. Health care costs have gone up by $2,500 a family. Middle-income families are being crushed.

So it's not like Romney never tried to talk to working class voters. There are differences here, sure; Romney preferred a bland "fix the economy" message to the "I respect the issues you have to overcome" message. Keep reading Santorum's interview and he does, as he did during the campaign, spend more time Feeling the Pain of lower-income voters. But so far he really only proposes changing the rhetoric and changing the focus of possible tax breaks. (He doesn't talk about his experience raising and caring for a daughter who was born disabled—very tactful, but it's something he could talk about.) The problem is that the media doesn't necessarily promise to cover any of that.

And Santorum doesn't have a record of focusing on that. In interviews, and in speeches, sure. But since the start of this year, how much has Santorum focused on economics? Here's a sampling of the press releases his office his sent out, previewing his political activity—oh, after the fiscal cliff reaction, where he told Republicans "there should be not a single vote for any deal to avoid the real fiscal cliff—the debt ceiling increase—without the passage of a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution."

- Santorum Launches Effort to Stop Nomination of Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense
- Santorum to Speak at March for Life Rally and Join Marchers En Route to the Supreme Court
- Santorum Calls SOTU a Glorified Campaign Speech on Class Warfare
- Santorum Comments on Death of Hugo Chavez
- Santorum Launches Petition Urging Congress to Uphold Our Second Amendment Rights
- Santorum to Deliver Keynote at Carolina Pregnancy Center Banquet in Spartanburg, SC
- Santorum Comments on Kermit Gosnell Murder Convictions
- Santorum Applauds 20-Week Abortion Ban Vote in the House
- Santorum Stands with Pro-Life Texans in their Fight to Pass 20-Week Abortion Ban Bill

In between, Santorum did write columns about how the party needed to talk more sympathetically to working class voters. But eight months into the year, he hasn't flown to any state to pressure Republicans on any particular policy geared toward those voters, or to protest any policy that might hurt them. (Surely there's a down-and-out welder somewhere who could use the Medicaid expansion.) He has flown in to praise their work on restricting abortions.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.