Rick Santorum: presidential candidate again, but so much has changed

Rick Santorum won the Iowa caucuses in 2012 and was runner-up to Mitt Romney in the Republican presidential primaries. But the 2016 field is bigger and stronger.

Charlie Neibergall/AP
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum walks on stage at the Iowa Republican Party's Lincoln Dinner earlier this month in Des Moines, Iowa.

Rick Santorum had quite a ride in 2012.

The former senator from Pennsylvania won the Republican caucuses in Iowa by just 34 votes – a big victory for an upstart presidential candidate with little organization or money – and became the conservative alternative to eventual nominee Mitt Romney. All told, Mr. Santorum won 11 nominating contests and accumulated the second-highest vote total after Mr. Romney.

On Wednesday, Santorum is expected to announce his second run for the presidency from his hometown of Butler, Pa.  

But 2016 is a completely different year. The Republican field is bigger and stronger, and Santorum is having a hard time getting much traction with Republican voters or with pundits. He ranks so low in polls he may not even be eligible to compete in the first GOP debate Aug. 6. 

Political handicapper Larry Sabato places Santorum third of three in what he calls the “Fourth Tier: Evangelical Favorites,” after former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, then sat out 2012) and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, a political novice. 

So why is Santorum even running at all? The answer is easy: Why not? He’s already been around the primary track once, and there are signs he’ll have financial backing again from mega-donor Foster Friess, who contributed $2 million to a pro-Santorum super-political action committee in 2012.

In January, Mr. Friess hosted a private gathering in Arizona to rally support for another Santorum presidential bid. Attempts to reach Friess on Tuesday were unsuccessful; an automatic reply to an e-mail indicated he would be unreachable until June 3.

In a recent interview with Greta Van Susteren on Fox News, Santorum suggested that his campaign would focus on the challenges faced by working-class Americans as well as the “the importance of making us globally competitive in manufacturing.” The importance of family will also figure prominently, as it did four years ago. So will national security. At a recent forum in South Carolina, Santorum promised to bomb the Islamic State “back to the seventh century.”

Santorum’s strongest argument for his chances in 2016 may be that he was the runner-up last time – and that Republicans have a history of nominating the “next in line” (see Romney, John McCain, and Bob Dole, for starters). But some potentially strong Republican candidates sat out the 2012 cycle, giving Santorum an easier path to second place than he might otherwise have had.

Santorum will also be hard-pressed to capture the social conservative vote the way he did four years ago. Mr. Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister with a showman’s flair, has already lured away several Santorum aides from 2012. (Huckabee also snagged the endorsement of Arkansas’s famous Duggar family, which had backed Santorum in 2012, but given the scandal that now swirls, Santorum may be just as happy the Duggars defected.)

Aside from Huckabee, Santorum is also competing with Dr. Carson, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and likely candidate Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin, for the evangelical vote. Santorum also doesn’t bring anything to the table in the GOP’s need to win Florida and attract Latino votes, the way the two top-tier prospects from the Sunshine State do – Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush.

It’s also been  8-1/2 years since Santorum held political office, having lost reelection to the Senate in 2007 by 18 percentage points.

In short, it’s highly unlikely Santorum can catch fire the way he did four years ago. But what’s the downside in running again?

“I don’t see one at all, particularly since Santorum can say he had a strong showing in 2012,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. But the counterargument is that “they weren’t voting for him, they were voting against Mitt Romney. This time around, it’s 31 flavors.”

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