Apollo 440 had a very catchy song called "Can't Stop The Rock". It comes to mind when looking at the state of the GOP nomination race and wondering whether Mitt Romney has become more inevitably the nominee than before? Charles Krauthammer seems to think so, and he blames that eventuality (which I believe he actually prefers) squarely on Rick Santorum. A few weeks ago I argued that by backing out of the additional pre-Super Tuesday debate Rick Santorum had chosen the right tactic (pulling out) for the wrong strategy (consolidating his Not Romney position).
It’s no use arguing that Rick Santorum won nearly as many Michigan delegates as Romney. He lost the state. Wasn’t Santorum claiming a great victory just three weeks ago when he shockingly swept Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado — without a single convention delegate being selected?He was right. It was a great victory. Delegate counts were beside the point. These three wins instantly propelled him to the front of the field nationally and to a double-digit lead in Romney’s Michigan back yard.Then Santorum went ahead and lost it. Rather than sticking to his considerable working-class, Reagan-Democrat appeal, he kept wandering back to his austere social conservatism. Rather than placing himself in “Grandpa’s hands,” his moving tribute to his immigrant coal miner grandfather as representative of the America that Santorum pledges to restore, he insisted on launching himself into culture-war thickets: Kennedy, college and contraception.
The strategy to focus on social issues, which are a swampland that the liberal media was all-too-eager to handhold Santorum into walking into, was a colossal miss. Remember this phrase? "It's the economy stupid." Rick Santorum veered into a direction that served no purpose to his campaign. Social conservatives already know he is a social conservative. Independent voters are far less interested in, or open to, that sort of focus than they are interested in the question of whether the GOP nominee can do better on the economy and government overspend than can the current occupant of the White House.
Being right on those social issues doesn't matter as far as voter appeal goes. What matters is how confident voters are in your economic positions. Every opportunity Santorum had to discuss the social issues, he was fully engaged. He should have been walking those conversations back to economic matters, or ignoring them almost entirely (other than to refute any ridiculous allegations).
He didn't and he may have torpedoed his own chances to win the nomination, or at least Michigan which would have been a potential knockout punch to Romney. Opportunity missed.
Santorum knows why. He’s now recanted the Kennedy statement. And remember that odd riff with which he began his Michigan concession/victory speech? About three generations of Santorum women — mother, wife, daughter — being professional, strong, independent, i.e., modern? That was an unsubtle attempt to update his gender-relations image by a few decades.Too late. Among men, Michigan was essentially a dead heat. But Santorum lost women by five percentage points — and, with that, the race.Social issues are what most deeply animate Santorum, but 2012 is not the year they most animate the electorate. In Michigan, among those for whom abortion was the most important issue, Santorum won by a staggering 64 points. But they made up only 14 percent of the electorate. Seventy-nine percent cared most about the economy or the deficit. Romney won them by 17.And, of course, he won overall. But only by three points, a weak showing in Romney’s native state where his (former governor) father is legend and where Romney outspent Santorum 2 to 1.The result should never have been that close. Romney won by default. Santorum had a clear shot and simply missed his mark.
To me that says a lot about the possible Santorum presidency. Missing strategic opportunities because of tactical considerations is not an endearing quality in a president. Realizing the mistake after the fact is alright, but seeing it before it plays out is a much better characteristic. The truth is that Mitt Romney may be unstoppable but it ultimately won't be because of his own force, it will be because those who could have stopped his GOP nomination turned out to be their own worst enemies.