Santorum carries the banner out of Iowa

Campaign 2012

Mitt Romney won the Iowa caucus with just under 25 percent of the vote. That is the weakest Iowa victory in the history of the process. The former Massachusetts governor put minimal though credible effort into the state because he knew that Iowa is just not his crowd.

But the problem for Romney is that the strong moral conservative element, much of it evangelical, that made Iowa so inhospitable to him is the core of the Republican Party nationally. The same shifting of support from one conservative champion to another that made for such a dramatic final month of campaigning in the Hawkeye State has been the same show on the larger national stage.

Romney managed to win in Iowa because conservatives were divided among several morally conservative and evangelical alternatives and he was able to neutralize the last-minute champions-Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul-with a barrage of negative ads. But it is reasonable to expect that the socially conservative camp will rally around one figure in time to deny Romney the GOP nomination.

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It would be overstating the case to say that conservatives are the 75 percent who did not vote for Romney. Roughly 60 percent of Iowa caucus votes went to Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachmann. Paul does not appeal to moral conservatives but many of his supporters are evangelicals. It is worth noting that this year's slate of GOP candidates is the most remarkably religious and evangelical ever to assemble.

In 2008, former Arkansas governor and Baptist minister Mike Huckabee won Iowa with 34.4 percent to Romney's 25 percent. Another 36 percent of the votes were distributed among Fred Thompson (not a religious man), John McCain (who had a tense history with evangelicals), and Ron Paul. In 2000, George W. Bush won by combining moral and religious conservatism with his establishment, Bush family credentials. In the two Republican contests prior to that-1988 and 1996-Bob Dole won on account of a different crossover appeal, namely, his home in the neighboring farm state of Kansas and his establishment credentials.

This year, the religious and moral conservative Rick Santorum came within eight votes of defeating the establishment candidate Mitt Romney, and if the caucus had come a week later he likely would have won. As other candidates collapsed, the blessing fell to him, the last in line among the credible "movement conservative" alternatives.

Santorum took up the rear because what most defines him is his concern for social issues, whereas the nation and this campaign are focused on fiscal and economic issues: debt and jobs. Santorum has an economic plan, but it is family matters that are closest to his heart. He wrote It Takes a Family, not Liberty Defined or To Save America. He's the guy with the huge family who homeschools his kids. But for conservative Republicans, moral and social issues are always at least in the background. If a candidate is permissive on abortion or same-sex marriage, he is out of the running. Santorum is solid on the family, so in the end Iowa gave him an ear on the economy. The banner behind him Tuesday night read, "Faith, Family and Freedom." In his excellent victory speech, he mentioned his faith and his family, but he emphasized, "The essential issue in this race is freedom."

While anything can happen in politics, the dynamics of this Republican primary season make a Santorum nomination quite plausible. Apart from Jon Huntsman, the other candidates have all had their successive rise and fall. Voters have found the tragic flaw in each one of them and moved on. Gingrich will hammer Romney on the rest of his way down. Huntsman, a good candidate in many ways, comes across as too snobby and secular to break through with the Republican base.

Only Santorum remains. And nobody dislikes him. As for Romney, unlike Dole and Bush in 1996 and 2000, he has no crossover appeal among constituencies in the party, no coalition. Generic polls indicate that American voters are looking for a way out of the Obama years. Rick Santorum is an experienced senator, politically conservative in a way that appeals to Americans broadly, a nice man, and utterly sincere. He could go the distance.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.


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