LINCOLN PARK, MICHIGAN – Rick Santorum rambled so distractedly through a speech here Friday night outlining the priorities of his first 100 days as president that it sometimes seemed he wouldn’t finish until he actually reached the milestone itself.
It didn’t seem to matter much, though, to the families who gathered to hear him in the Knights of Columbus Lodge here, about half an hour south (or “downriver,” as the locals say) from Detroit. All of them looked like they knew their way around the place; several of them came three-generations strong, with elderly grandparents, young parents and little children. Just before Santorum started, a group of nuns showed up in bright white habits that stood out like frosting on a cake against the heavy backdrop of dark and damp winter coats draped over everyone else.
The crowd hung on Santorum’s every word, praising him loudly to visiting reporters before he started and after he finished. “I just like all his ideals, what he stands for, the family, God, the constitution,” said David Hollobaugh, a retired restaurant manager from Allen Park. The only problem for Santorum was that the crowd was tiny, less than one hundred in a room that could have comfortably fit five, six or seven times as many.
It is in rooms like the meeting hall at the Lincoln Park Knights of Columbus lodge that Santorum’s fate in the Republican presidential race may well be decided. He has shown that he can damage front-runner Mitt Romney with strong performances among the party’s most ideological voters, especially evangelical Christians and the most committed tea party activists. But to build a coalition broad enough to truly wrest the nomination from Romney, Santorum will likely have to reach more deeply into blue-collar, heavily Catholic, working-class white communities that have became central to the Republican electoral coalition, especially between the coasts.
Santorum hasn’t yet consistently demonstrated that he can attract those voters, despite an economic message focused on reviving manufacturing and all of his cultural affinities as an Italian-American devout Catholic who was reared in a blue-collar steel town in western Pennsylvania. In the five states for which exit polls have been conducted, Santorum hasn’t consistently shown more support among voters without a four-year college degree than those with advanced education. Nor has he consistently run more strongly with middle- than upper-income voters. Most strikingly, Santorum has not carried more than 15 percent of Catholics in any of the four states (New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and Florida) in which there were enough to measure. In each of those states Romney far outpaced him with those Catholic voters.
It’s likely Santorum ran up better numbers with working-class Republicans in the three states he carried earlier this month for which exit polls were not conducted: Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri. A county-by-county analysis of the voting results by the website Patchwork Nation showed Santorum especially strong in small-town and older counties (as well as those with big concentrations of evangelicals). Unless Santorum can attract such working-class voters in large numbers, he probably can’t beat Romney in next Tuesday’s potentially pivotal Michigan primary—and the equally crucial Ohio contest one week later on Super Tuesday.
Throughout the see-saw GOP race, Romney has consistently run best among better-educated, more affluent and more secular voters, and his hold on that managerial wing of the GOP seems solid in his home state of Michigan. Romney’s Friday afternoon speech to the Detroit Economic Club at cavernous Ford Field may have provided a disastrous backdrop, but conversations before and after underscored how strongly that corporate-oriented audience related to his business background.
Josh Banfield, who works at a local radio station, offered a typical reason to explain why he’s backing Romney. “What really separates him is his fiscal background—he’s been in the private sector and he’s fixed companies,” he said.
That same note turned up regularly at tea party rallies Romney addressed Thursday and Saturday, especially among attendees in white- collar professions. Even at Saturday’s Americans for Prosperity rally in Troy, a strongly ideological gathering that provided a tough audience for Romney, a reasonable guide to picking his supporters in the crowd was to look for the men wearing sports coats.
One was Bob Seger, not Michigan’s fabled everyman rock troubadour, but a finance executive for a hospital chain. “I am extremely impressed by with his business skills and we need a businessman to straighten things out financially,” Seger said.
To overcome that Romney strength, Santorum will need a strong showing among less affluent Republicans. He seems guaranteed a good night on Tuesday with the party’s most socially-conservative elements both the Dutch Christian Reformed church voters around Grand Rapids and other evangelical Christians scattered through rural and smaller communities. Both an NBC/Marist Institute poll and Detroit Free Press/WXYZ survey released last week showed Santorum solidly leading Romney among likely voters who consider themselves born-again Christians.
That probably would not be enough to overcome Romney’s other advantages here though, since evangelicals comprised only about 40 percent of the Michigan GOP primary electorate in 2008. Santorum likely will also need to establish some distance with Romney among the roughly additional 30 percent of primary voters who are Catholic (some Catholics also identified as evangelical), and the nearly three-fifths who lacked a college degree. Those are the descendents of the fabled “Reagan Democrats” from the 1980s, the blue-collar workers who grew up in a house with a picture of Franklin Roosevelt and probably Walter Reuther on the mantle, but shifted toward the GOP around a complex of racially-tinged issues related to taxes, spending, welfare dependency and crime.
Santorum has kept those voters firmly in his sights since arriving for his final push in Michigan last Friday. He’s largely avoided the incendiary social issue arguments that he ignited last weekend in Ohio and instead pounded away at an economic message laced with a vivid streak of class resentment, aimed equally at President Obama and Romney.
Those flavors were especially prominent in Santorum’s forceful speech to the Americans for Prosperity rally, which electrified the huge crowd far more than Romney’s later address. When Santorum criticized Romney for previously praising ideas like limiting carbon emissions, he framed his rival’s choice firmly through a class lens. “I didn’t blow in the wind when things were popular with the elite, because I don’t come from the elite,” he thundered. Santorum played that card even more heavily toward Obama. “President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college,” Santorum declared. “What a snob. There are good, decent men and women who work hard every day who aren’t taught by some liberal college professor.”
Jim Thienel, the GOP party chairman in generally affluent Oakland County sees signs that Santorum’s appeal is finding an audience. “The county is divided economically,” he said. “I think the middle class is responding—say those people earning $30,000 to $80,000 who are church-going conservative people are responding much better to Santorum, and the $80,000 plus people are responding much better to Romney.”
Mary Foydel, who attended the Americans for Prosperity forum, represents the kind of voter Santorum will need to truly challenge Romney here. She is Catholic and works in the public schools. Her parents were Democrats, but she has shifted toward the GOP. That was partly because of social issues, but largely because she believes that government welfare programs have encouraged the breakdown of the family and accelerated the decline of neighborhoods like the old parish in Detroit that she left many years ago for suburban Romeo. In both Santorum’s strong religious conviction, and his emphasis on welfare reform, she finds him a mirror of her own values.
“That was the biggest consequence of the Great Society, to bring the breakdown of the family,” she said after his speech Saturday. “I like that Santorum isn’t afraid to stand up and say it. It needs to be said.”
Santorum will need plenty of voters like Foydel to stand up for him in the many blue-collar communities around Detroit if he’s to overcome Romney’s white-collar advantages—and upend the GOP race with an upset here Tuesday.