Santorum’s ’06 loss not just bad luck

During this lull in primary voting, there’s been time for reflection on Rick Santorum, including pondering the former senator’s potential as running mate for Mitt Romney, the presumptive nominee. (I know, you think such an assumption is inordinately presumptuous; nevertheless, bear with me and read on.) Because a running mate is supposed to do one thing — besides avoiding controversy — that singular task being winning your home state, it’s hard to get excited about Santorum’s appeal for even a runner-up spot behind Romney. The last time Santorum faced his home state’s electorate, in 2006, he fell by double digits. He did so poorly, in fact, that there’s little doubt he’d fail again in Pennsylvania, even if he were placed at the top of our Republican ticket. 

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Why is Santorum’s 2006 thumping not being discussed in more depth? Byron York of the Washington Examiner, one of the few reporters to explore this topic, has at least tried — unsuccessfully, I’d say — to explain Santorum’s lopsided defeat. York’s commentary seems less hard-nosed scrutiny than a thinly veiled attempt to justify Santorum’s point of view that 2006 was just a bad year for Bush Republicans. While York admits that Santorum’s loss was larger than any other GOP senator’s and concedes that Santorum was often too argumentative, something that the conservative York seems to hope might be reconciled in a victorious nomination of the current heartthrob of our party’s right wing, the meat of York’s analysis focuses on Santorum’s support for an unpopular war in Iraq, outlining a reconstructionist election narrative that makes the Pennsylvanian a victim of our principled thrust into that Middle Eastern trouble spot.

York is correct that Santorum received only 15 percent of the vote, according to exit polls, of those Pennsylvanians who disapproved of the war in Iraq. At the same time, though, a clear majority, 67 percent, of the voters interviewed by the same exit pollsters said that terrorism was an extremely or very important topic. Santorum won the vote of 51 percent of those who said terrorism was extremely important, suggesting that a larger concern surrounding terrorism might well have offset much of the angst about the narrower issues of Iraq. York might just as well have focused on Santorum’s poor showing among pro-

abortion rights voters, among voters discouraged by the economy or among secular voters, single women and independents. The former senator underperformed in most every category of the electorate. 

I went back and compared Santorum’s performance against that of Lynn Swann, the GOP gubernatorial nominee in 2006 challenging Pennsylvania’s Democrat incumbent Ed Rendell. The former Pittsburgh Steelers player, a chronically underfunded candidate even the RGA abandoned by early October, virtually matched Santorum in every category of the exit polling. You might say that this just confirms that 2006 was a bad year all around for the GOP. But that lets Santorum off too easily. That a two-term senator couldn’t add any support over and above that earned by the base-vote benchmark set by rookie Swann says that Santorum was horribly ineffective, either as a senator or as a campaigner, or both. 

Let’s look at some key vote groups and see how Santorum compared with Swann. Among independents, Santorum actually ran 4 points behind Swann. Among Catholics, Santorum grabbed the same 41 percent Swann got. Similar close results were recorded for frequent churchgoers, anti-abortion supporters, mothers with children, married women, small-town residents and other groups where Santorum thinks he’s particularly strong with his family-values mojo. The neophyte Swann matched the supposedly savvy senator right down the line. There was no value added by the more experienced Santorum.

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.