Recent polls show former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum rising. Some national polls of Republican primary voters show him in the lead, other show him closely behind Mitt Romney. Many polls show him competitive in a head to head race with President Obama. In the remaining primary states, he currently has a slight lead over Romney in Michigan, and is within striking distance in Arizona. Both states hold primaries a week from tomorrow.
Why is Santorum surging, Romney stalling, Gingrich sliding, and Paul holding steady?
His success comes more from his strategy of engaging voters in a one-on-one retail approach than it does the specifics of his policies. While he appealed to the strong current of evangelical voters in Iowa, and laid out a very credible foreign policy approach, we can’t ignore his Big Government approach to spending and social issues.
If we were to look to a seventeenth century figure in the Anglo-American culture who Santorum’s policies most resemble, it would be the authoritarian Christian communitarianism of Massachusetts Bay Colony’s first governor John Winthrop to whom we would point, not the Christian natural liberty of English libertarian John Lilburne.
The Cato Instititute’s David Boaz recently pointed out Santorum’s poor track record of support for the limited government ethos that defines the Tea Party movement.
Michael Barone notes that Santorum’s deft explanation for his endorsement of RINO Arlen Specter over conservative Pat Toomey in the 2004 Republican Senate Primary in Pennsylvania (Specter’s re-election was critical, Santorum said, because he was needed to usher Alito and Roberts on to the Supreme Court) was only half of the story. Barone points out that Santorum, the political operative with 16 total years in Congress, owed his 1994 election to the Senate to Specter’s support.
Santorum’s tax proposals, however, are so bad that the respected Tax Foundation gave him a D+. Instead of simplifying the tax code, Santorum would maintain its present complexity. Worse yet, he favors the Hamiltonian strategy of picking winners and losers through the tax code, providing a variety of incentives to favored industry. Manufacturing, which struggles in his native Pennsylvania, gets special tax benefits.
Comparing Santorum’s policies to those of his two main competitors–Gingrich and Romney, Santorum is only slightly less Hamiltonian. Santorum distinguishes himself from these two in one key regard — he opposed the TARP bank bailouts of October, 2008.
Why, then, does Santorum enjoy more than a 2 to 1 advantage over both Gingrich and Romney among Republican primary voters who consider themselves tea party supporters?
There are three reasons:
1. Santorum is authentic and consistent in his views.
2. He is likable and approachable.
3. He genuinely engages with local tea parties around the country.
Romney, for reasons that continue to remain a mystery to me, appears to be following a strategy of actively avoiding the Tea Party movement. To my knowledge, he has never addressed an actual tea party rally or local tea party group. In December, he spoke on the phone at a tea party tele-town hall with other Presidential candidates, but that appears to be the extent of his direct communication with the Tea Party movement.
This remoteness–an odd strategy to keep Romney in a “bubble” away from potential supporters–seems to permeate his campaign. In Ohio last week, for instance, Attorney General Mike DeWine withdrew his endorsement of Romney and endorsed Santorum. “He doesn’t write, he doesn’t call,” DeWine said of Romney.
Gingrich, who has a long and twisted history with the movement, has, until recently spoken at numerous tea party rallies, but has never really actually modified his policies according to communications he’s received at these rallies, at least as far as I can tell. And where Santorum appears friendly, upbeat, and approachable, Gingrich appears a bitter, scowling, intellectual elitist. Santorum is blue collar, Gingrich is academic cap and gown.
This Saturday, for instance, Santorum will be the featured speaker at the Third Anniversary Celebration of the Tea Party movement to be held in Chattanooga Tennessee, hosted there by the local tea party. Romney turned down a similar invitation, giving Santorum an open running field to garner tea party support around the country. This is not the first time Santorum has spoken to local tea party groups. Last week he was a featured speaker at a tea party gathering in Ohio. Clearly, Santorum has realized the value of showing up and engaging with tea parties, especially in states like Tennessee and Ohio, where Super Tuesday primaries will be held on March 6.
The lesson from Santorum’s recent success should be his tactics more than his message. Retail politics works. Television ads, robocolls, email blasts and the like are increasingly “white noise” –irritating background ignored by most voters. The election of 2012 will be decided more by neighbors talking to neighbors they trust than it will be traditional media. Age old person to person grassroots politicking is experiencing a resurgence. And that’s a good thing for the country.
Michael Patrick Leahy is the editor of the Voices of the Tea Party e-book series and co-founder of Top Conservatives on Twitter and the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition. His new book, Covenant of Liberty: The Ideological Origins of the Tea Party Movement, will be published by Broadside Books in spring, 2012. He can be reached on Twitter at @michaelpleahy .