While the rise of Rick Santorum in the national polls of Republican voters may cheer many Democrats, who believe that he would be a weak general election candidate, there are some signs that Santorum may be a more formidable opponent than most people think. There are a couple of reasons for this, based on different election-year scenarios.
If the economy improves, with the unemployment heading downward for several months this spring and growth picking up, then Obama has a significant advantage going into November. As an incumbent president, Obama has a built-in advantage, not to mention the resources that incumbency can bring. And, simply put, if things are getting better with the economy, then voters are less likely to switch horses in midstream. The only caveat would be a pickup in inflation, particularly a spike in gas prices.
However, if the economy stays flat, or there is even a small downturn, then Obama will be in for a real fight. Romney, as a former businessman running on his experience as a CEO, may be able to score some points over Obama, but Romney has not yet generated a lot of enthusiasm in the Republican base, which is vitally important in close elections.
Which brings us to Santorum, who has generally been dismissed as an extreme social conservative who has great appeal to the hard right of the Republican party, but not much chance in a general election. However, Democrats need to rethink the general view of Santorum, not based so much on his extremism or lack of popular appeal, but rather on the complexion of the electorate and the mathematics of the Electoral College in a close election.
Looking at the Electoral College map, there are several factors that favor Santorum, even if he were to lose in the popular vote. Obama got 370 electoral votes in 2008, which would seem like a comfortable margin when 271 votes are required to win. However, many of those votes came from states that traditionally vote Republican, like Virginia and North Carolina, or from swing states that went Republican in the 2000 and 2004 elections, including Florida, Ohio, Missouri, Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. All together, those states will account for 134 electoral votes in 2012, more than enough to put a Republican over the top.
In very close elections, there are two key elements to victory. First, a fired-up base which Obama had in 2008 and Santorum would likely have if he gets the nomination in 2012. But even more importantly, it is a few independent voters in a very few swing counties in a few swing states that usually determine the outcome of the presidential contest. And those are the voters who will consume virtually the entire focus of a close campaign, particularly in the last six weeks as the candidates race from county to county in Ohio or Missouri or Florida, chasing down the few undecided voters in key districts. So who are those few independent voters in the swing counties of the swing states?
It is impossible to tell with great precision, since many voters register as independents but vote predictably with one party or the other. About two-thirds fall into this category -- splitting evenly between voting Democrat or Republican. That leaves only one-third that are truly independent voters, open to voting for either party depending on the candidate. This group also tends to be moderate to conservative in their ideology. While they may hold moderate views on social issues, they tend to be pro-business and anti-big government.
So where would Santorum stand with these voters, who will determine the outcome of a close presidential election? While much depends on how Santorum stands up to the negative attacks within the Republican party, Santorum has some reason to be optimistic about his chances with this handful of voters who may choose our next president. While Democrats will decry Santorum's views on social issues, and the Republican base will rally behind him, most truly independent voters may largely ignore his extreme conservatism on social issues, simply because they don't really care about the wedge issues.
If that is true, then the independent voters may lean towards Santorum because of his economic conservatism -- even if it is little more than empty rhetoric. Again, this will depend largely on the state of the economy, since these independent voters are more likely to view Obama favorably if the economy is showing signs of recovery -- and are less likely to want to dump a White House incumbent. However, it is a danger sign for Obama that, according to a Pew study, 47 percent of independents who voted for Obama voted for George Bush in 2004, and 25 percent of them voted for a Republican candidate in the 2010 Congressional elections.
While it may sound crazy to many Democrats who view Santorum as an extremist of the worst stripe, he probably will not be regarded by independents in the same way. Unlike Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, all of whom proved to be irresponsible and impulsive in their public demeanor as well as their political ideology, Rick Santorum has so far run a disciplined and smart campaign that shows him to be an experienced political operator. Even his outrageous statements about everything from gay marriage to contraception and the role of women in combat seem based on careful political calculation rather than simple impulse.
Although some may argue that by raising the flag of wedge issues Santorum will alienate general election voters, that argument may be too simplistic. Santorum certainly understands that in a close election, both Democrats and Republicans will return to their traditional voting patterns. That means that Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana and Missouri, along with possibly Colorado and Nevada -- all of which went for Obama in 2008 -- will likely go Republican. That leaves the big prizes of Florida and Ohio -- not to mention Santorum's home state of Pennsylvania -- to clinch the election.
If Democrats fall into the trap of engaging Santorum on the social wedge issues or simply branding him as an extremist, they may be ceding a big advantage to the Republicans in the fight for those few crucial independent voters in the swing states. Those independent voters are unlikely to base their votes on social issues, no matter how extreme a candidate's views. For those voters, the key is the candidate's positions on big government and the economy -- and perhaps most importantly the demeanor and perceived character of the candidate. Obama -- who certainly can compete well against any of the Republican candidates -- will need to confront Santorum vigorously on all those fronts.