Sure, Rick Santorum is now leading in at least one national poll of Republican voters. Big whoop. So was Herman Cain at one point. In fact, as Nate Silver points out, Santorum becomes the 11th person to lead in at least one national poll for the 2012 presidential nomination. So I still have a hard time making myself believe that Santorum has a chance of either stopping Mitt Romney or becoming the party’s nominee himself.
But there’s a variety of reasons to begin to wonder:
– The poll that puts Santorum up nationally among Republicans — Public Policy Polling — also reports that Romney’s favorable/unfavorable numbers are down to 44/43 percent. Remember, that’s among usual GOP primary voters. It is hard to believe that the frontrunner for a party’s nomination could have negatives that high among his own party’s base.
– Another poll, this one by ARG, puts Santorum (33%) up by six points over Romney (27%) in Mitt’s native state of Michigan, where they hold the primary two weeks from tomorrow. (A PPP poll puts Santorum up by 16). If Santorum were to manage to pull that one off, Romney would be in serious trouble, and I think you’d start to see open panic set in among the GOP establishment. (Romney won Michigan in 2008 fairly easily).
– Looking a little deeper into ARG numbers, you see the source of Romney’s woes. Among self-identified Michigan Republicans, Romney (18%) actually comes in third, behind both Santorum (42%) and Gingrich (24%). The former Massachusetts governor does as well as he does in the state only because he enjoys a substantial lead among independents and Democrats who say they may vote in Michigan’s open GOP primary. He gets 48 percent of that vote compared to Gingrich with 13 percent and Santorum with 11 percent.
If Romney tries to slide further to the right, he begins to lose those votes in the middle. He doesn’t really have good options.
– Santorum is no Gingrich. Romney could play dirty with Gingrich, launching all-out attacks on his character, history and record because those were the rules that Gingrich himself plays by. Newt’s entertaining whines about negative attacks drew no sympathy from anybody. In addition, you could say the most horrible things about Gingrich and basically still be telling the truth.
Santorum, the devout family man, is not such an easy target.
– In another interesting development, the editors of National Review are now calling on Gingrich to step down from the race, writing:
“… it would be a grave mistake for the party to make someone with such poor judgment and persistent unpopularity its presidential nominee. It is not clear whether Gingrich remains in the race because he still believes he could become president next year or because he wants to avenge his wounded pride: an ambiguity that suggests the problem with him as a leader. When he led Santorum in the polls, he urged the Pennsylvanian to leave the race. On his own arguments the proper course for him now is to endorse Santorum and exit.”
Gingrich has few friends in the GOP establishment; should that call to concede begin to be echoed elsewhere, it could set off an avalanche against the former speaker. His fundraising has already dried up, with even his chief sponsor Sheldon Adelson reportedly shutting off the money spigot.
– Not so long ago, Romney would have been overjoyed to have Gingrich leave the race, but today that may be his biggest nightmare. Conversely, it has been widely thought that Gingrich has remained in the race largely to wreak revenge against Romney, whom he has come to despise.
If that is truly Newt’s prime motivation, he could have no better vengeance than to abandon the race and leave Romney alone to face the little sweater vest that could.
– Jay Bookman