Exeunt Santorum

Perhaps this image will grace a forthcoming book…

The grueling Republican primary contest finally seems to have played itself out, as Mitt Romney’s last formidable opponent Rick Santorum has elected to suspend his campaign, albeit without an endorsement. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul remain on the trail, but Paul is merely promoting a message and Newt is merely promoting Newt Gingrich. Unless it comes out very soon that Romney secretly baptized David Ben-Gurion, he has the Republican nomination sewn up.

 Reports indicate that a major factor in Santorum’s decision was the ongoing health troubles of his youngest daughter, Bella. The three-year-old suffers from Trisomy-18, a nearly-always fatal chromosomal disorder which has led to two hospitalizations so far this year. While there is no reason to doubt that his daughter’s health was a significant factor behind Santorum’s departure, by leaving on his own terms Santorum has also avoided the potential embarrassment of losing in his home state of Pennsylvania, where polls had narrowed in recent weeks.

Santorum deserves credit for fighting as long as he did. In a campaign characterized by flash-in-the-pan candidates who rose up to challenge Mitt Romney only to be undone within weeks by poor debate performances, accusations of RINOdom, or sex scandals, he managed to stay consistently popular from the moment he burst onto the scene in Iowa. He stayed in the race on a shoestring budget and without an organization remotely comparable to the Romney machine.

Credit or no, though, Santorum was aiming to become president of the United States, and in this endeavor he failed. If any figure is to blame for his inability to get over the hump, it is probably Gingrich, who refused to drop out even as his poll numbers dropped sharply in February. Had Gingrich pulled out after his defeat in Florida, he may have swung a few more states Santorum’s way and given him enough momentum to overcome Romney’s persistent claims of inevitability. As it happened, Gingrich and Santorum kept splitting the anti-Romney vote and allowed Romney to outlast them both.

At a glance Santorum would seem to have a promising future (he’s only 53, after all), but it’s unclear just where he will go from here. Romney’s vice-presidential nod will probably go to a “young gun” like Paul Ryan or perhaps a successful governor like Mitch Daniels. His political options in Pennsylvania are quite limited as well, as it’s too late for him to try earning a rematch against Bob Casey Jr. this fall and the Republican governor is eligible for reelection. He also doesn’t have the charisma of Huckabee or Palin, so he probably won’t be able to swing a television gig out of this whole affair. 

With his immediate options limited, others have broached him as a leading potential candidate for 2016 if (okay, when) Romney is defeated this year. However, I think this course is also unlikely to work. First of all, the 2016 field will probably be a lot stronger, with several current fresh faces like Marco Rubio maturing into presidential contenders. Second, the factors which make so many people strongly dislike Santorum today figure to be stronger in 4 years. Santorum is prominent not merely as an opponent of gay marriage but homosexuality in general. Not only do gay rights activists hate him more than they hate Eddie Murphy’s early standup acts, but even many younger voters in the political middle view opposition to gay rights as a major demerit or even a dealbreaker. This weight around Santorum’s neck will almost certainly be heavier in 4 years and could sink his chances, especially against a strong field.

What is left, then? Well, Santorum could become a generic prominent conservative who makes speaking appearances and puts out the occasional book, which more or less describes his life before running for president. Unfortunately for him, little more is likely to be forthcoming.


–Blake Neff