point of view

Why it should be Obama vs. Santorum

February 12, 2012 

— Mitt Romney was the inevitable nominee - until he wasn't.

In order to sustain a lead, a candidate's message must resonate with the heart and the mind. Romney's cakewalk to the Republican presidential nomination has been stymied by the inability to get anyone excited about his campaign. He has supporters, but not believers.

Rick Santorum's message resonates with voters' hearts and minds, lately at least, because he is a true believer. He believes in his message and his message is consistent with core Republican values. What gave Santorum the edge in Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri last week can give him an edge in the general election against President Barack Obama.

Santorum speaks directly to issues that are most relevant to core Republicans. He focuses on social and cultural issues that evoke emotions, and emotions move people to vote, especially those who align themselves with a particular party. This has helped him do well in primaries and caucuses when core conservatives turn out to vote in greater numbers than independents.

Conventional wisdom states a candidate must win independents to win an election. But this is only true if independents show up to vote in large numbers.

Generally, independents are less likely to vote than party-identifiers. In 2008, Obama's message and charisma evoked an emotional response from independents. But with the president failing to meet the expectations of many who he energized in 2008, turnout among this block of voters is expected to be small in 2012, which means winning independents will be less important.

When independents stay at home, getting the party base to turn out becomes more important. Santorum has been able to do this and Romney has not.

What pushed Santorum to the front in the most recent contests was his ability to stay above the bickering and negativity that took place between Romney and Newt Gingrich. Santorum is not as susceptible to personal attacks as he seems to have a clean personal life, as far as we know. This means to attack Santorum, one must attack his policy positions. This cannot be done in the GOP nomination process because to attack Santorum's policy positions would be to attack the Republican platform.

This wouldn't stop the president from criticizing Santorum's policy positions in the general election, but it also means we would see a campaign in which policy would have to be discussed in a meaningful way. Could we be so lucky?

If Gingrich wins the nomination, the Obama campaign will go after his personal life and his over-the-top persona. If Romney wins the right to go up against the president, the focus will be on his tax returns, flip-flopping and his work at Bain Capital.

But if Santorum wins the nomination, he and the president will be forced to defend their parties' view of what good government entails and which policies are best for the country. In other words, an Obama-Santorum matchup will focus on things that actually matter.

An election about issues is what this country needs. It may be too much to hope for, but it is a prospect we should all get excited about. To win the GOP nomination Santorum must find a way to keep his campaign positive and issue-focused. Not only will it help him win the nomination, but it is the right thing to do.

Kyle Scott teaches political science at Duke University.

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