Welcome back, McCotter
Thad McCotter’s presidential campaign was a disaster. He finished last out of 10 candidates in the Ames, Iowa straw poll, despite being one of the GOP aspirants who bothered to show up. National surveys showed him taking about 1 percent of the vote. McCotter was the first major Republican contender to drop out of the race.
So what could McCotter possibly teach Rick Santorum, who suspended his campaign after a surprisingly strong second-place finish to Republican front-runner Mitt Romney? Plenty, as it turns out. Consider some of the reasons Santorum came up short.
The first problem that Santorum faced is that, like Mike Huckabee before him, he had problems reaching out beyond evangelicals. This shouldn’t have been the case, since Santorum is actually a practicing Catholic. But in many key states, Santorum failed to appeal to his coreligionists.
In Michigan, Santorum came within three points of beating Romney, the son of a former Wolverine State governor. While Santorum won the evangelical vote by 16 points, he lost Catholics by seven. In Ohio, a bellwether state that was decided by just one point, Romney beat Santorum among Catholics by a 13-point margin. In Illinois, Romney carried 53 percent of Catholics while Santorum took just 30 percent.
A conservative candidate who received a larger share of the Catholic vote could have potentially taken some of these states from Romney. Maybe some primary voters repeated former New York Times editor Bill Keller’s embarrassing mistake of labeling Santorum an evangelical rather than a Catholic. It’s also possible that somebody with a better mix of economic populism and social traditionalism — say, a Russell Kirk-quoting Republican from Michigan — could have beaten Romney in the large industrial states of the Midwest.
Secondly, it might have helped consolidate tea party support to have a candidate with an actual record of votes against Medicare Part D (Santorum was for it) and the TARP bailout (Santorum said he was against it, but was no longer in Congress at the time to cast a vote) running against Romneycare.
Another Santorum shortcoming is that many people thought he was too serious and censorious. Polls show that while conservative positions on social issues are frequently popular, social conservatives are not. The fact that social conservatism is associated with these personality traits is one reason. “One thing that most people involved in politics agree on is that battles over social issues are usually lost by the side that the public perceives as the aggressor,” Ramesh Ponnuru recently observed in National Review, writing that the electorate “reacts negatively to zealotry or perceived zealotry.”
Imagine a candidate who is pro-life and socially conservative, but also funny and self-deprecating. Perhaps someone who likes rock music and (for a politician) has a high degree of pop culture literacy. That might counteract the image of zealotry. “Thad has a strong religious compass,” Congressman Peter King (R-NY) told me in an interview three years ago. “But that doesn’t keep him from being understanding of other people’s day-to-day human failings.” In other words, a brand of social conservatism that is respectful of faith and tradition more than it is judgmental of others.
By now, it should be obvious that we are talking about what Santorum could have learned from a candidate like McCotter rather than McCotter himself. There are reasons McCotter tanked early: if an underfunded, disorganized former senator will struggle in a race against Romney, an underfunded, disorganized congressman will be in even worse shape. Moreover, if you are going to depend on free media opportunities to break out — as Santorum did and McCotter clearly hoped to — you will need to get invited to the debates. McCotter wasn’t.
But Santorum was clearly onto something in his come-from-behind campaign for the Republican nomination. Just a few more points in a handful of states could have genuinely blown the race wide open.
For principled conservatives, substance matters most of all. But in electoral politics, style matters a great deal too. Perhaps in the next round of primaries, a Republican will take this appeal further than Santorum — and certainly McCotter — did.
At the very least, McCotter might have been able to teach Santorum to play “Free Bird.”
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.