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POLITICAL CONNECTIONS

Santorum’s Appeal

Like Gary Hart before him, Rick Santorum could be a symbol of the changing makeup of a political party.

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Republican presidential candidate former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum holds up a $20 bill during a campaign stop in Manchester, N.H., Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)  (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Constituencies create presidential candidacies as much as the other way around. In that respect, Rick Santorum’s potential emergence as the principal challenger to Mitt Romney signals a continuing class realignment of the Republican coalition that the party has not yet fully acknowledged.

In presidential-nomination fights, it’s common for each major constituency in a party to find a champion. When an unexpected challenger like Santorum breaks out, it often signals a deeper shift at a party’s tectonic level.

 

That was the case in the 1984 Democratic race, when Gary Hart surprisingly emerged as Walter Mondale’s principal rival. Though Mondale survived, Hart’s rise foreshadowed the growing influence within the Democratic Party of college-educated white professionals who were moderate on economics but liberal on social and foreign-policy issues—the inverse of the blue-collar whites who had previously anchored the Democratic coalition. A quarter-century later, the growing ranks of those upscale voters helped Barack Obama defeat Hillary Rodham Clinton, who relied much more on the old lunch-bucket Democratic constituencies.

It remains to be seen whether Santorum can grow into a full-scale threat to Romney. But unless Santorum’s candidacy totally flames out over the next few weeks, his run could mark another milestone in a comparable (if mirror-image) shift of power toward working-class whites in the Republican coalition.

One way to view the GOP is as an alliance of populists and managers. The managers are college-educated, usually upper-middle-class voters whose top priorities are controlling federal spending and reviving the economy. The populists are the overlapping circles of whites without a college education, white seniors, evangelical Christians, and conservative Catholics. Many of these voters are economically strained, culturally conservative, and looking more for a candidate to upend Washington than to manage it. And they are voting ever-more reliably Republican over time.

 

The first sign of the populists’ growing influence was in the presidential runs of conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan in 1992 and 1996. Buchanan, a brilliant if often intemperate political packager, offered a combustible mix of social conservatism, protectionism, isolationism, nativism, and populist attacks on elites that all embodied the embattled sense of decline among many blue-collar Americans. After shocking Bob Dole in the 1996 New Hampshire primary, Buchanan’s “peasants-with-pitchforks” crusade fizzled in South Carolina. But he demonstrated that there was an audience within the GOP for an edgy collection of views that unnerved the party’s traditional business-oriented leadership.

Santorum doesn’t reprise Buchanan’s suspicion of international engagement (he’s closer to a neoconservative). And generally, he doesn’t use language as racially charged as Buchanan sometimes did (though he tilted in that direction in Iowa with comments about entitlements and African-Americans). But he closely follows Buchanan’s mold in his mix of unstinting social conservatism and economic nationalism. With equal passion, Santorum pledges both to end abortion and revive American manufacturing (albeit through tax cuts, not the trade barriers Buchanan favored). Within minutes at the same appearance, he can alternately sound like Pat Robertson and Dick Gephardt.

In 2008, the GOP primary electorate was split almost in half between voters with and without a college education, the line that generally divides the managers and the populists. Romney is a comfortable choice for all but the most ideological managers. Santorum will become a serious threat to Romney only if he can unite the populists.

In his views, style, and background, Santorum should be a much easier fit for those voters than Romney. But it’s not clear that Santorum, any more than the rest of the Republican field, has fully contemplated the implications of an electoral coalition that now relies so heavily on blue-collar and older whites. While most of those voters passionately oppose government spending they view as transfer payments to the undeserving, they are equally determined to protect the programs they
believe most benefit them—Social Security and Medicare.

 

When Santorum spoke last week in Marshalltown, Iowa, Carlene Illum, a retired credit-union loan officer, cheered his promises to retrench government entitlements for the poor and denounced Obama as “a socialist” for his health care plan. But she blanched at the idea of converting Medicare into a voucher, or premium-support, plan (which Santorum backs) and also recoiled at retrenching Social Security (which he is also urging). “I don’t think Social Security is an entitlement because I paid into it,” she said. “I feel the same way about Medicare.” She’s not alone: In the most recent Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll, three-fifths of noncollege Republicans opposed converting Medicare into a voucher-like system.

In the general election, Democrats will seek to woo back older and blue-collar whites by portraying the GOP nominee as a threat to Medicare and Social Security. That effort faces long odds; many of those voters appear irreversibly determined to oppose President Obama. But the resistance among these core Republican voters to retrenching entitlements for the elderly could cause much larger headaches for the GOP if it wins in November and tries to implement such an agenda. The same demographic realignment providing Santorum a tailwind now could become a headwind for Republican hopes of clipping the social-safety net tomorrow.

This article appears in the January 7, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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