Rick Santorum Seeks to Ride Midwest Momentum to Michigan Upset

Feb 17, 2012 1:45pm
gty rick santorum thg 120102 wblog Rick Santorum Seeks to Ride Midwest Momentum to Michigan Upset

                                                                      (Image Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

America, it seems, does not think that Rick Santorum stands much of a chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination: Bettors on the prediction market Intrade gave him only a 17.7 percent shot of securing the GOP nod, a paltry amount for the candidate leading the national polls.

A closer look at Michigan – the next state to vote in the primary, on Feb. 28, the same day as Arizona – might change their minds. That’s right – the native state of Santorum’s rival Mitt Romney might be the one to make Santorum the new GOP darling and deliver a shocking, potentially decisive blow to the race’s presumptive favorite.

Thus far, Santorum has simply owned the Midwest. He won Iowa. He won Minnesota. He won Missouri. The region, laden with social conservative voters, has sided time and time again with the former Pennsylvania senator, the most outspoken candidate on issues such as abortion.

In Iowa, for instance, 83 percent of Republican caucus-goers described themselves as conservatives, including 47 percent who said they are “very” conservative. Santorum was backed by a third of the very conservative faction, paving the way for his Jan. 3 victory there over Romney.

In addition, evangelicals accounted for 58 percent of Iowa caucus-goers. Santorum won a third of that group, too. Yet another indication of Santorum’s strong support from socially conservative evangelicals: He won 55 percent of voters who cited abortion as their top issue.

A month later, GOP voters in the heartland again delivered a stinging rebuke of Romney as Santorum swept a trio of states: Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado. In 2008, Romney had won the latter with 60 percent of the vote. In one county – El Paso County – the former Massachusetts governor raked in 58 percent of the vote that year. But not this year, not against Santorum. Santorum won 47 percent of the county’s vote Feb. 7, compared with 31 percent for Romney.

Minnesota – another state that Romney carried in 2008 – also opted for Santorum this time around. Indeed, despite the endorsement of the state’s former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, despite the fact that his super PAC, Restore Our Future ,spent money on television advertising there, Romney did not even finish second in this month’s caucuses, but rather third. Making matters worse, he failed to win even one county. Yet again, conservative voters – the ones who make up the base of the party – had opted for Santorum.

In the Midwestern states, Santorum, 53, has been boosted by the fact that social and cultural issues like Planned Parenthood, contraceptives and the Catholic Church have played a prominent role in the news cycle. That is something that Santorum will hope to replicate in Michigan.

Another factor that he hopes will help him is his oft-cited, blue-collar roots. Santorum’s grandfather worked in Pennsylvania’s coal mines, giving the candidate the kind of story that tends to resonate with voters in Rust Belt states like Michigan. At Santorum’s first campaign stop in Michigan Thursday in Detroit, he joked that to his grandfather, the fact that he is “running as a conservative Republican … caused quite a few flips in the grave for him.”

If Santorum can manage to duplicate his Midwest magic in Michigan, a win over Romney – in Romney’s home state, no less – could prove damaging enough to change the fate of the race once and for all.

“This is a huge, crucial moment,” ABC News contributor Matthew Dowd told George Stephanopoulos this week on “Good Morning America.

“I think it’s actually the most important moment for Romney in this entire campaign up until now. The moment is, can he stop Rick Santorum like he stopped everybody else. If Rick Santorum wins this, I think what we’re going to have is a new front-runner for the first time in this race after the Michigan primary going into Super Tuesday. It is an unbelievably important moment for Mitt Romney in his home state. If he loses, it’s a much different race.”

No wonder Romney, 64, is now treating Michigan like a must-win state. And that is one of a number of factors that will work against Santorum in the coming days. On Thursday, the pro-Santorum’s super PAC – the Red, White and Blue Fund – announced an ad buy in Michigan worth nearly $700,000. But even that is less than half of what Romney and his allies are deploying in their bid to destroy Santorum’s candidacy.

As David Axelrod, a top adviser to President Obama’s re-election campaign, tweeted Friday, “Congratulations, Rick. You’ve arrived! Getting full Romney treatment now.”

If what Romney did to Newt Gingrich in Florida is any indication, Santorum has plenty of reason to worry about Romney’s financial firepower. In the run-up to the Sunshine State’s primary last month, Romney and his allies spent more than $15 million on ads, and all but one of those ads was negative. The overwhelming array of attacks proved far too much for Gingrich to overcome as he slumped to a resounding defeat in Florida’s Jan. 31 primary.

More cause for concern for Santorum: in Michigan – one of the states hit hardest by the country’s economic downturn – the main issue is the economy.

The auto industry is driving the economic recovery in the state, where manufacturing makes up more than 20 percent of the state’s economy. On Thursday – as Santorum and Romney both campaigned in the state – General Motors announced record profits of $7.6 billion in 2011. The state’s unemployment rate has plunged from 12.6 percent in March 2009 to 9.3 percent in December 2011.

A state focused more on jobs than social issues is good news not for Santorum, but for Romney, the former businessman who has staked his candidacy on his ability to turn around the country’s economy. Thus far Santorum has attempted to combat that fact by arguing that a healthy economy is impossible without healthy families.

“We are not going to have a strong economy, folks, or limited government, if the family continues to decline,” Santorum said in Detroit Thursday.

Will Santorum’s strength among social conservatives, his rust-belt background and his momentum in the Midwest be enough to beat Romney’s financial fortitude, economic know-how and home-state advantage? Come Feb. 28 we’ll know the answer, but for now, the odds appear to say “yes.”

“We’ve got Santorum holding steady in our Michigan forecast,” the New York Times’ Nate Silver tweeted Friday. “About a 75 percent chance to win based on the polling.” 

Intrade bettors, take heed.

Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.

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