Perhaps the most glaring weakness in Rick Santorum's case that he can win the presidency is his 18-point loss when he sought a third term as senator from Pennsylvania in 2006. Santorum explains that '06 was a terrible year for Republicans, and indeed the GOP, in the sixth year of George W. Bush's time in the White House, did lose control of both House and Senate. But why, specifically, did Santorum lose, and why did he lose by such a large margin?
Surprisingly, given the intensity of the campaign, the reasons are seldom explored at any length. That might be because they cut both ways. Santorum lost in part for embracing policies that rival Mitt Romney also embraced at the time; citing those reasons today wouldn't help Romney attack Santorum. But Santorum also lost in part for entirely personal reasons, alienating many Pennsylvania voters with his temperament and approach to governing; citing those reasons wouldn't help Santorum defend himself. So the question has gone largely unanswered.
The biggest policy reason for Santorum's loss was his outspoken support for the war in Iraq. By November 2006, the war was going badly and threatened to turn into a full-scale catastrophe. President Bush resisted calls to change course and had not yet settled on the troop surge that would ultimately rescue the situation from disaster. While Santorum's Democratic opponent, Bob Casey, called for a different course, Santorum stuck with the president, and with the war.
"As other Republicans attempt to steer away from Iraq and terrorism, Sen. Rick Santorum argued yesterday that America must stop 'sleepwalking' while 'evil enemies' plot the nation's destruction, making foreign policy a focal point in the final days of his campaign," the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on October 27, 2006. Santorum made the finale of his campaign into a so-called "Gathering Storm" tour, in which he mixed support of the war with calls for continuing vigilance in the war on terror. In making the war such a central part of his campaign, Santorum stubbornly kept the focus on the weakest part of his candidacy.
The voters clobbered him for it. In Pennsylvania exit polls, 61 percent of voters said they disapproved of the war. Santorum lost among them, 15 percent to Casey's 85 percent. Among the largest sub-group of war opponents, the 42 percent of voters who said they strongly disapproved of the war, Santorum lost seven percent to 93 percent. That by itself was enough to doom any hopes for a third term.
Santorum doesn't talk much about the connection between his support for the war and his defeat. Neither does Romney, because in 2006 Romney supported the war, too. As late as 2008, during a Republican debate in Florida, when Romney was asked, "Was the war in Iraq a good idea worth the cost in blood and treasure we have spent?" he answered: "It was the right decision to go into Iraq. I supported it at the time; I support it now." Today, Romney says he would not have supported the war had he known that there were no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction inside Iraq. But in 2006, he was with Santorum.
Santorum didn't lose just because of the war. The economy was also an issue in Pennsylvania in 2006, and Santorum lost 66 percent to 34 percent among people who said the economy was an extremely important issue, and 55 percent to 45 percent among those who said it was a very important issue. Santorum even suffered on values issues, his usual strength, splitting the vote 50 - 50 among those who said values issues were extremely important.
Santorum also suffered the consequences of some personal decisions. Even though he owned a modest home in Pennsylvania, he moved his family to a much nicer house in Virginia, leading to charges not only that he had abandoned his home state but that he had also gone native in Washington. The fresh-faced outsider had become a DC insider.
When he moved to Virginia, Santorum also kept his home-schooled children in a program run by the Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School. That cost Pennsylvania taxpayers thousands of dollars a year, and some of Santorum's political opponents demanded he reimburse the state. "Just pay the money back," Casey said to Santorum in one debate. "You ripped off the taxpayers. Pay it back.." Santorum declined, and an adjudicator ruled in his favor, but at the very least the school issue highlighted the fact that Santorum had left Pennsylvania behind.
All that hurt Santorum. But there was one more thing that hurt him as well, and that was what might be called the Rick Santorum issue. In the Senate as well as in his home state, Santorum often struck people as arrogant and headstrong, preachy and judgmental. Even today, he believes what he believes strongly and can sometimes become so involved in an argument that he seems focused more on winning the argument than reaching some sort of useful agreement. Throughout his career Santorum has always maintained that his forthrightness means everyone always knows where he stands. Sometimes that means people know they don't like him.
With all the other factors going against him, the personality factor helped sink Santorum in 2006. Yes, it was a bad year for Republicans, but Santorum's 18-point loss was larger than any other GOP senator. It was more than just a defeat; it was a personal repudiation. In private conversations with friends, Santorum is said to understand that he sometimes came on too strong for the voters' comfort. It's something Santorum still struggles with; he can still be argumentative, still be determined to win a dispute he probably shouldn't be having in the first place.
So Santorum's defeat was a complicated affair. He can blame a lot of different factors, but in the end he was most responsible for his own fate. Now, if Santorum's presidential campaign continues to gain popularity, he'll likely have to discuss the '06 defeat more. The Romney campaign will continue to point to it as proof that Santorum can't win the White House. Voters might believe that, too, unless Santorum can show them that he learned from his loss, and that he is a better candidate for it.