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Rick Santorum Is a Victim of His Own 2012 Success

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Rick Santorum is underrated.

The former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania, who announced his 2016 candidacy this morning, is commonly referred to as a “failed presidential candidate.” This is a description that hides more than it expresses: Santorum ran the best campaign of the 2012 election cycle, using a relatively-scant sum of money from a single wealthy donor to bedevil Mitt Romney, the richest and best-funded challenger. He won Iowa, crimping Romney’s electability narrative, and then nearly embarrassed the frontrunner in his father’s home state of Michigan. Santorum went on to claim almost twice the number of delegates of any other candidate. Where many of the 2012 GOPers ended as jokes, Santorum began as a joke thanks to his Google problem, something he had largely defeated by the end of the cycle, and ended as the right wing’s standard bearer. If that’s failure, Santorum will take it.

Along the way he tethered the GOP to his social conservative values. While Ron Paul used his campaigns to carve a niche for his libertarianism within the GOP — one the party is fiercely fighting by proxy with his son — Santorum bent the Romney campaign and the party as a whole to the right. This was a reaffirmation of social conservatism’s elemental role in the GOP coalition — one Romney, a pro-business establishment candidate, would have just as well done without.

For a measure of success, look no further than the current GOP field, which boasts numerous candidates, including Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, an arguably-resurgent Rick Perry, vying for Santorum’s turf. That includes money. Santorum spent $23 million in 2012; Cruz raised more than that in his first weekend of fundraising. While Santorum’s prime funder Foster Friess has pledged himself anew to his candidate of choice, Santorum likely won’t be able to get as far in 2016 against better-funded candidates who have lifted his issue profile. Santorum’s current campaign is a victim of the success of his last one.

But it wasn’t just Santorum’s issues that saw him through 2012; it was his dogged persistence at voicing them. Contrasted against Romney, who seemed to change positions on social issues depending on his electorate, Santorum stubbornly stuck to his positions, even when it hurt him. This was viewed as bad campaigning: “Instead of pivoting to the economy, he has wasted much of his precious turn in the limelight by returning to the culture wars,” ran one diagnosis. But it was the lack of pivoting that many voters responded to.

Whether his better-funded socially conservative rivals have the ideological rigidity — or the campaign tenacity — Santorum did remains to be seen. If they don’t, Santorum could outlast them and wind up in a two-person race with Jeb Bush, a second chance at taking down a (relatively) moderate establishment candidate. But if Cruz’s millions crowd Santorum out of the race, the latter is owed a thank you note.

[Image via Andrew Cline / Shutterstock.com]

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