Rick Santorum’s geographic suicide pact

While the 2014 midterm election season has not yet fully taken shape, reading most major press outlets, one could be forgiven for concluding that the 2016 presidential primary has already kicked off. At least, that seems to be the impression of former Pennsylvania senator, and 2012 candidate, Rick Santorum, who has all but explicitly declared his intent to run for the office again in an interview with Time magazine.

Santorum starts off that interview sticking to a standard script that few conservatives would argue with. But then, at one point, he rushes spectacularly headlong into misguided political thinking, offering his analysis on how he would have defeated President Barack Obama last time around:

I would have been able to attract the voters in the states that mattered. Romney would probably do better than me in New Jersey and California and New York. But I’d do better in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Virginia—in the states that were going to decide the election. Look at how we did in Ohio in the primary. We got outspent by huge amounts. I didn’t run a single ad in the Cleveland market, and we still almost beat him in Ohio.

One could excuse Santorum his inelegant phrasing and assume that by “the states that mattered,” he means “the states that were comparably winnable.” But unfortunately, this comment is representative of a much larger failing on the part of a specific variety of Republican, Santorum among them, who tend to write off demographically unfriendly states not merely as unwinnable, but as worthy of absolute contempt.

This is not merely an offensively parochial attitude to have, it is also a losing one. And it’s one Santorum managed to avoid earlier in the interview, in this passage:

Even Santorum’s current gig as CEO of the Christian movie company Echolight Studios serves, in some ways, as preparation for another try at the GOP nomination. ‘I’m a storyteller. I see this in some respects as refining my craft,’ he says. ‘Reagan did it the other way, right?’

If anyone believes Ronald Reagan would have written off his home state of California, or states like New York and New Jersey (both of which voted for him twice), they’re mad. And if anyone thinks a winning Republican Party can ignore these states (one of which may, in fact, field a 2016 GOP contender of its own), they are simply naïve. Santorum most definitely fits the bill.

To begin with, there is the obvious mathematical irony that the states in which Santorum believes Romney would have been competitive are worth more electoral votes than the ones in which he believes he himself would have been competitive. In fact, in conceding the three states he does, Santorum effectively concedes nearly one-fifth of the entire electoral vote count. Not exactly mathematical wisdom, especially if he had been right about Romney’s competitiveness in any of these states. If the GOP could find a candidate capable of actually taking New York, California and New Jersey back, it would be sheer folly not to have that candidate on the ticket in some capacity.

It’s true that, barring a surging political realignment, Republicans are unlikely to win back some of these now solidly blue states. But some possible 2016 contenders like Rand Paul are nonetheless courting people in precisely these lions’ dens, and that could prove crucial. Besides their mathematical importance, California and New York are the font of nearly every element of American culture and media. A candidate who alienates those states can expect to see their campaign derailed via cultural and news memes before the Democrats even start trying. One doesn’t even need to Google Santorum’s name to know how easy that would be in his case.

But finally, the importance of campaigning in states like California, New York and New Jersey is even more simple than all this: campaigning in these states today is a dress rehearsal for campaigning nationwide. By 2040, campaigners like Santorum might feel nostalgic for campaigning in present-day New York, seeing as the demographics of the country will look more like present-day California by that time. By contrast, most of the states Santorum cites as his strongholds lag demographic trends. Michigan, for instance, is 3 percent more white than the country as a whole.

Unfortunately, in Santorum’s case, this is probably no accident. He ran his last campaign as a love letter to the sorts of dying industries that propped up an American social order that has rapidly obsolesced, one built around the sort of plodding, manufacturing industries that used to dominate the states he mentions. Candidates today need to have a vision for our tech-focused, global, entrepreneurship-driven world. Those states that are peopled with younger voters who were raised in this world have seen their reliably Republican status shift as soon as they start running candidates whose appeal rests solely on the politics of cultural and social nostalgia. That is no accident.

Rick Santorum may compare himself to Reagan, but his political theory is closer to Pat Buchanan’s. While the town of Ellijay, Ga., might regret this, Buchanan never even won a nomination, let alone the presidency.

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