Why Rick Santorum’s Loss Should Be Jeb Bush’s Gain

After 2012, Rick Santorum’s world fell apart. As set out in Politco, Santorum’s 2011-12 team – the team that got him the 34 caucus votes that made him a contender – has broken up. Not Simon and Garfunkel sometimes-we-still-do-shows-together broken up, Taylor Swift we are never, ever, ever getting back together broken up. Santorum’s former campaign driver (or talking point prop), Chuck Laudner, is now attending to Donald Trump. Santorum’s former campaign managers are with Rand Paul. Important Santorum cheerleaders like former Sec. of State Matt Schultz have Cruz’ed away, while others, like Northwest Iowa powerhouse Sam Clovis, refuse to re-commit. (And, of course, Mike Huckabee is busy trying to scrape former Santorum super-surrogate Josh Duggar off the bottom of Santorum’s bus.)

What does all this mean? Well, the 2012 Iowa Caucus was essentially a three way split between Romney, Santorum, and Ron Paul. To win (or come in second, depending on what vote count you believe), Rick Santorum used the Mike Huckabee coalition, which seems to represent 25-35% of the Iowa Republican caucus goers. Since the leaders of that group – Santorum’s old team – have went their separate ways and now support a variety of evangelical and other aspirants (besides Trump, Paul and Cruz, we have Santorum again, Huckabee again, Perry again, Ben Carson, Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal), the obvious beneficiaries are the 2016 candidate replacements for Ron Paul and Mitt Romney.

Chuck Laudner
Former Santorum driver Chuck Launder with Donald Trump

Rand Paul may or may not inherit his dad’s support, but discussing the ins and outs of all things Paul is another blog post for another day. Which leaves the Mitt Romney/Republican establishment replacement, Jeb Bush. Jeb Bush is such an on point replacement for Mitt Romney that 1) Romney backed out of running again because Bush was running and 2) Bush plucked Romney’s Iowa man, David Kochel, to be his campaign manager. (If you do not believe that Republican establishment represents a voting block in Iowa and elsewhere, or that the establishment backed both Romney and now Bush, this blog post is not for you. But, I recommend you go read the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal for a while and then reevaluate your position.)

Imagine Romney’s margin of victory in 2012 if, instead of the evangelical base solidly behind Santorum, it had been divided equally between Santorum/Bachmann/Perry. Romney would have won walking away, 25% against 13%, 13%, 13%. (To this day I question Newt Gingrich’s 2012 constituency – flamboyant, angry, and anti-Romney establishment voters? – so it is hard to assign it to anyone else.) So, obviously, now that the Santorum coalition is in pieces, Jeb “Catholic Mitt” Bush, is sitting at 35% in the polls and absolutely crushing the rest of the scattered field, right? Right???

Santorum in the "Chuck Truck" at a Pizza Ranch
Santorum in the “Chuck Truck” at a Pizza Ranch

Oh, wait. He’s not. In fact, Jeb is mixed right in with the entire score of Republican candidates. (See this Quinnipiac poll – note this a national poll, not an Iowa poll, but the trend in Iowa seems similar to the trend nationally.) What happened? Why hasn’t Jeb been able to use Rick Santorum’s loss to his advantage? Why is Jeb downplaying his campaign in Iowa when a caucus victory should be his for the taking? The answer to that question is twofold.

First, Jeb learned the wrong the lesson from Mitt’s campaign. I’ve never studied battle strategy or read the Art of War. But, I’m pretty sure that in battle, you are supposed to kill your enemy, not leave him alive so he can later sneak up behind you. But Mitt never went for the win in 2012. Romney hemmed and hawed about whether he would campaign in Iowa so long that the Huckabee coalition was able to form up around Santorum (even though no one loved Santorum the way they loved Huckabee) and give Romney a serious challenge. Because Romney let Rick Santorum live in Iowa, Romney spent February and March 2012 getting shot in the back by Santorum through primaries across the country.

Many commentators have said that Romney’s long primary battle, and the positions he had to take to poach Santorum supporters, was what ultimately doomed his chance to win in November. (Maybe if Romney hadn’t dumped so much money on the primaries, he could have avoided the Florida fundraiser in May 2012, where he famously told 47% of the country not to vote for him.) So what lesson does Jeb seemed to have learned from that? Apparently the lesson learned is DO THE EXACT SAME THING. Jeb seemingly is going to skip the straw poll, hold Iowa at arm’s length and practice the Kochel/Romney wait and see strategy. Instead of trying to win Iowa outright, he will do, as Romney did, and wait until deadly competition emerges.

Mitt Romney telling Sioux City he would be in Iowa again and again... he lied
Mitt Romney telling Sioux City he would be in Iowa again and again… he lied

Second, instead of distinguishing himself from the rest of the evangelical field, and boldly proclaiming that he is his father’s son – a calm, reasonable, old fashioned, conservative – Jeb is trying to play in Fox News’ sandbox. At every opportunity, Jeb is taking positions that make Terry Brandstad Republicans cringe. Instead of saying, “jobs, economy, jobs, economy, security, jobs, economy,” Jeb said the war in Iraq was a good idea, said global warming is debatable, parsed his immigration position into complete nonsense, said support for gay marriage is unfathomable and doubled down on the Terri Shivo fiasco. The only ‘moderate’ position he has staked out is on common core. (While heightened education standards may be a laudable middle ground issue of old, it is not a winner for any demographic piece of the larger Republican pie.)

In 2008, Romney/McCain/Thompson/Giuliani got approximately 55% of the caucus votes (with Ron Paul getting another 10%.) In 2012, Romney and the thrice-married, serial adulterer Newt Gingrich got 40% (with Ron Paul getting 20%). Obviously those voters represent a broad mix of positions. But we know for sure that all those voters, over 60% of the Iowa caucus voters in the last two cycles, looked at the farthest right, most evangelical candidate(s) and said, “no thanks, I’ll take a pass.” With their votes, those Republican Iowa caucus-goers said they either wanted someone more moderate, more nuanced, more electable or more libertarian. All those votes are lying on the floor right now, waiting to get picked up. But, instead of going after them, Jeb Bush has decided he wants to fight with Ben Carson over Rick Santorum’s 2012 scraps.

Rick Santorum’s 30% of the caucus electorate could conceivably be dived TEN ways among different evangelical candidates. Meanwhile the 60% of Iowa Republican caucus goers who never cast a vote for Rick Santorum or Mike Huckabee are waiting for their candidate. If Jeb gets ANY significant percentage of that group, he wins. But, so far, Jeb Bush has politely declined to campaign for those votes. I can’t understand why.


by Jason Winter
Posted 6/4/15

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