This week Rick Santorum returns to Iowa for the first time since last year’s presidential campaign. For Santorum, whose victory in the 2012 caucuses started an improbable run at the Republican nomination, the visit will look like a campaign swing: an appearance at a party fundraiser, a visit to the Iowa State Fair, a speech at a gathering of social conservatives. Santorum hasn’t signaled whether he will run again in 2016 and is unlikely to make any sort of formal declaration soon. But the trip will certainly send the message that he’s getting ready to run.
If he does, one thing is already clear: Santorum will again be underestimated. In 2012, he won 11 primaries and caucuses, making him the solid second-place finisher in a party that has a long history of nominating the candidate who finished second the last time around. (See Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney.) And yet now, no one — no one — is suggesting Santorum will be the frontrunner in 2016, should he choose to run. As far as the political handicapping goes, Santorum’s 2012 victories don’t seem to count for much.
There are reasons for that. A significant number of people, including moderate Republicans, think of Santorum as a sort of religious politician, obsessed with social issues and motivated largely by his pro-life convictions and Catholic faith. Santorum certainly fed that perception at a few crucial points in the 2012 race with comments on contraception and the role of religion in politics. But anyone who watched his campaign for more than a few minutes saw a candidate with a wide-ranging agenda, one who spoke at far greater length about the economy and national security than about social issues.
And of all the Republican candidates in 2012, Santorum was the one who came closest to a position on the economy that might appeal to middle-income voters alienated by both parties. At nearly every stop, Santorum talked about voters who haven’t been to college, who aren’t the boss, who are out of work or afraid of being out of work. And then, when millions of those very people stayed away from the polls in November — they could have been the margin of victory for Mitt Romney — finding a way to connect with them instantly became a top priority for the Republican party.
Briefly put, Romney lost because he failed to appeal to the millions of Americans who have seen their standard of living decline in recent decades. Of all the GOP’s possible candidates, Santorum has the most cogent analysis of that loss, and a plan to avoid repeating it in 2016. That’s the topic we started with when I sat down with him at a Washington coffee shop last week.
“We have a tendency as Republicans to really identify with achievers,” Santorum began. “We’re big fans of free enterprise. We know the greatness of our free market system that has created wealth beyond any other country in the world. So it’s natural for us to see successful entrepreneurs as heroes, because in many respects they are, because they’ve been part of building something that has greatly benefited everybody in society.”
“But we tend not to see the folks who are behind the counter or on the factory line or in the wash room as heroes, even though they built it too, right? They were part of building it. It’s not that we don’t think they’re good people, but we don’t celebrate them, because they’re not the ones leading the effort. And I think that’s a flaw — not that we shouldn’t celebrate the job creators, but we also have to celebrate the job holders. I believe in entrepreneurs, but that’s a very small segment of the population, and to be crass politically, we’ve already got most of those folks, because if they’re small business people, they know that big government is an albatross around their necks. So we need to talk more specifically about what we can do to create job opportunities for people instead of business opportunities for people.”
On the stump, Santorum often reminded audiences that fewer than one-third of adult Americans have graduated from college. (The precise number, from the Census Bureau, is that 28.2 percent of adults age 25 or older hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.) That non-college majority earns less than people with degrees, but Santorum does not believe Republicans should simply push for more people to go to college. “No!” he says. Many college programs costs vast amounts of money and don’t give degree-holders marketable skills, he says, and the liberal regime in place at so many colleges doesn’t instill the values he believes are fundamental to American greatness. And, most importantly, many people just aren’t cut out for college.
“They don’t see work as the end-all and be-all,” Santorum says. “They see raising a family, being part of the community, having leisure time. That’s OK. It’s OK for us not to all be Type-A personalities and want to be super achievers.”
As Santorum talks, it’s clear he’s describing many of the people who chose not to vote in 2012. They’re not Democrats; they wouldn’t have voted for Obama. But they weren’t motivated to vote for Mitt Romney, either. In future elections, they could mean victory or defeat for Republicans. How would Santorum reach them?
“First, it’s very important — it’s the old saying, people have got to believe you care,” he begins. “And if you’re not talking about them — you’d be amazed how much people think you care if you talk about them and about what their concerns are and about the problems that they’re having.”
President Obama does that well, Santorum points out, with speech after speech about people who are struggling. “He relates to them, he describes their problems,” Santorum says, before arguing that the president’s solutions — higher taxes, bigger government — are all wrong. (Obama also uses the phrase “middle class” all the time, which bothers Santorum, who believes there shouldn’t be room for the concept of class in American politics. He prefers “middle income.”)
In any event, the president appeals to voters who might also be open to a Republican message, if a Republican candidate tried to reach them. So beyond talking to those voters — a pretty big first step — what would Santorum do? His answer is long, but hints at a different way for GOP candidates to campaign.
“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,” he says. “We have to be committed to that. You absolutely have to emphasize the goodness of that capitalist system.”
“But 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. 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?”
Republicans can’t simply tell those people to go fix their own boats, Santorum continues. “Most of us have had help from somebody along the way. Most of us who have had holes and had someone help us fix those holes, and what we need to be is sensitive to that and say there are things we can do.”
But what? Even the Republicans who have realized that the party has a serious problem connecting with such voters have often fallen short on specific ideas on how to make that connection. Santorum begins to go through a few ideas. In the campaign he proposed a zero tax on manufacturing, he said, and now he’s “looking at other tax ideas that would be an incentive for manufacturers to come back to this country.” Then he talks about “training classes for folks who aren’t going to college. Whether it’s a welding class, or a community college thing, or hotel management, or whatever the case may be, we need to look at non-college career paths and start saying this is going to be a focus of the Republican party. We’re going to start to create opportunities for folks who aren’t going to go to college.”
Santorum’s problem in the last campaign, of course, was that he occasionally made grievous mistakes that overshadowed his economic message. There was the interview about contraception — “It’s not OK” — that, when it came out months after it was done, forced him to spend a lot of time explaining himself. Then there was the time he said John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech on Catholicism made him want to “throw up.” Then there was calling Obama a “snob.”
Would he be more disciplined if he ran again? Yes and no. Yes, he’ll have better answers. “I’m going to say I don’t believe we should change the laws on contraception in this country,” Santorum says. And he won’t talk about throwing up. Or call the president a snob. But with Santorum, discipline can only go so far. “Sure, it was a breakdown of discipline,” he says, “but to suggest that Rick Santorum is a disciplined candidate — show me any time in the history of my career that I was disciplined in this regard.”
He’s got a point. And when I ask yet again whether he would have to be more disciplined the next time, he answers, “I think one of the reasons I did as well as I did was that I answered people’s questions.” And that is that.
Rather than dwell on the mistakes, Santorum argues that his success at connecting with audiences on economic issues proved that voters didn’t view him just as a social-issues candidate, or a guy who committed gaffes about contraception. Look at how well he did with the voters Republicans needed most in 2012. “Does that say my campaign was about contraception and abortion?” Santorum asks. “That’s something that none of these establishment Republicans understood. They didn’t understand why I was connecting. Who I connecting with. They had no clue. And they’re sitting here figuring out, ‘Well, we have to have Mitt Romney because Romney is the guy who can get the votes we need.’ Well, 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.”
Santorum had one enormously bad break in the campaign, and it was in the state he’s visiting this week. After surging in the final days of the Iowa campaign, he watched as the race ended in a virtual tie between himself and Romney. The count on election night was unofficial and would have to be certified later — a process that has always resulted in changes in vote totals — but Romney was nevertheless declared the winner by a grand total of eight votes.
Santorum was stunned. “I had no clue that the press would treat it like that,” he recalls. “I knew it was an uncertified ballot. To me, it was a tie, and this thing was going to be decided in a couple of weeks. And then, within hours, it was Romney wins, he’s going to win New Hampshire, it’s over. The press ran with it, and it’s unfair that they did, in my opinion.”
In the end, the vote totals did change, and Santorum was declared the winner of the Iowa caucuses by 34 votes. But that determination didn’t happen until the campaign had gotten to South Carolina. Santorum never got the chance to spring off his victory in Iowa.
As we talked, I said he sounded a little resentful, like he is still at least a little angry about what happened. “No, not at all,” he said. “No, no, no. I look back on this as the greatest experience of my life…I’m not holding grudges. Not a single grudge.”
“Trust me, trust me — I’m not at all a second guesser looking back,” Santorum continues. “I look back and I see the miracle of what we accomplished with no money and no support from anybody in this town, and I think that’s a great thing.”
Now, it’s time to look forward. Santorum will return to an Iowa where Republicans are excited about Sen. Ted Cruz, where they’re curious about Gov. Scott Walker, where they want to hear from Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Rand Paul and other new faces. If he decides to run, will Santorum be the same old Rick? “I’m perfectly prepared to run a campaign with the same authenticity and the same ideas,” he says. “I would hope that I would be a lot better organized and better funded than the last time around. But we don’t intend to repeat the same campaign that we ran last time. That would be foolish. We’re not in the same position we were last time.”
That applies especially to Santorum himself. “The campaign was an amazing growing experience for me, a maturing experience,” he says. “And so I feel much more comfortable in my skin. It’s not that I didn’t think I could do the job or that I could run a good campaign before. But I feel more confident now.”