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As Best Anyone-But-Mitt Choice, Santorum Can Win: Jonathan Alter

January 13, 2012

(For more Bloomberg View, click on VIEW <GO>.)

Jan. 6 (Bloomberg) -- Even after a surging Rick Santorum had tied Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses, Intrade, the predictions market for politics, put Santorum’s chances for the Republican presidential nomination at less than 5 percent. Traders apparently think Romney will win because he has the funding and organization.

This shows why investors should stick to making money on companies, not candidates.

Although Romney remains the favorite, this now looks to me like an emerging two-man race, especially if Saturday’s Texas conclave of social conservative leaders rallies around Santorum. (Rick Perry’s reversal of his decision to withdraw could complicate that.) Because money follows momentum, Santorum now has a good shot at mounting a stiff challenge to a stiff front- runner who, despite his peerless establishment support, has shown little ability to appeal to three-quarters of today’s GOP.

On Tuesday, Romney will finally break 25 percent among his summer-home neighbors in New Hampshire, where his business-class profile fits the state well even though he lost there in 2008. Romney may win handily but won’t beat the expectations spread, thanks in large part to Jon Huntsman’s traction (every one of his votes comes from Romney’s hide) and the likelihood of a withering assault from a steamed Newt Gingrich in two debates this weekend. Santorum, in single digits in New Hampshire this week, almost certainly will surpass the forecasts. The old mill towns of the northern part of the state contain the same blue- collar Catholics who were his base for so many years in Pennsylvania, and they’ll probably respond well to his message about the manufacturing sector.

The ‘Right’ Stuff

Then it’s on to Mormon-unfriendly South Carolina on Jan. 21, where Gingrich and Perry will mercilessly pummel Romney, an assault that -- like every instance of negative campaigning -- will pull down all three of them and benefit Santorum. (Gingrich, by the way, blames Romney’s super PAC ads for his dwindling prospects, but those ads only ran in Iowa and not the rest of the country, where Gingrich also tumbled out of serious contention.) Florida, 10 days later, is a Tea Party state, which favors Santorum (or Gingrich), though Jeb Bush’s team is mostly with Romney. The big Super Tuesday states are swayed less by money and organization than by the center of gravity in the party, which will eventually produce an ABM (Anyone But Mitt) candidate, most likely Santorum.

In the scrum, Romney will try to make Santorum out to be an earmarking errand-boy for the welfare state (already a theme on right-wing blogs). Santorum will reply that he was actually a Senate floor manager of the landmark 1996 welfare reform, and then pivot to pound Romney on “Romneycare.” Running to Santorum’s right will be as futile as, say, challenging Barry Goldwater’s conservative credentials in the 1964 primaries. And Gingrich isn’t likely to try. He praised Santorum extensively in his Iowa concession speech before telling radio host Laura Ingraham that he sees himself and his old wingman from the House as teammates.

For years, the news media has snickered about Santorum, a dour scold whose belief that all same-sex marriages should be annulled is only one of the views that reporters and Democrats (if that isn’t redundant) find abhorrent. His “I’m for inequality” provocations, defense of discrimination against people with pre-existing medical conditions, opposition to food stamps, belief that exceptions from abortion laws in the case of rape and incest are “phony,” and pre-Vatican II view that contraceptives are “a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be” all render him a likely loser in the general election.

Changing His Game

But not in the Republican primaries, where candidates see no percentage in parsing the extremist statements of their rivals. (Santorum’s false implication last week that food stamps go mostly to blacks got little attention within the GOP.) Because he knows that a good chunk of the party is conservative fiscally but moderate socially, Santorum can be expected to tamp down his holier-than-thou act and stress economic themes.

He’s already adapting his game to reflect more of the middle-class pragmatism that got him elected statewide twice in blue Pennsylvania, where in 2004 he pleased moderates and enraged conservative activists by endorsing pro-choice Arlen Specter over reliably conservative Pat Toomey in a GOP primary.

A rangier Rick, more ready for The Show, was on display late Tuesday when both Santorum and Romney addressed supporters in Des Moines after midnight. These victory speeches were seen only by night owls and those of us who inspect political horseflesh for a living. But if they’re indicative of future performance, superconfident Romney aides are indulging in false bravado.

A smiling Santorum was gracious and moving. He even showed a little self-effacing humor, joking about his widening waistline. He kept the God talk to a minimum and articulated a vision based on his grandfather, an immigrant coal miner, that didn’t seem conspicuously right-wing. He explained how his proven appeal in working-class Democratic districts made him electable. Most of all, he seemed authentic, the most elusive and critical ingredient in politics.

Romney, by contrast, cobbled together bits of his stump speech into an off-key mishmash. His peroration on the campaign as a struggle “for the soul of America” was soulless. When he asked that the veterans in the crowd identify themselves, it didn’t escape notice that none of his four sons on the stage raised a hand. Like a Ginsu knife salesman, he was trying too hard.

Potential Pitfalls

Of course, if Santorum is like Mike Huckabee, the 2008 winner in Iowa, and has no talent for fundraising and organization, he’ll lose. If Romney, as expected, maintains his dominance in debates, Santorum will lose. Or he may simply blow himself up. After strong House and Senate campaigns in 1990, 1992, 1994 and 2000, he lost by 17 points to Bob Casey in his bid for a third Senate term in 2006. Santorum was so obtuse in that campaign that he tried to explain away accepting $73,000 from a local school district for home-schooling his children when his family was actually living most of the time in Virginia. Instead of sweeping his defeat under the carpet, he needs a humble explanation of how it changed him.

Yet if he softens his views on women’s issues (not so hard for a politician), nearly everything else about him fits the temper of his party, from draconian budget cuts to the class resentments that always arise in a deep recession. The comparisons this week to Ronald Reagan were overdrawn. But so were those to Michele Bachmann. Rick Santorum is the old-new face of the GOP. Don’t be shocked to see him accept the nomination late this summer in Tampa, Florida.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

--Editors: James Gibney, Stacey Shick

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