Matt Lewis

What Rick Santorum could have done better (hint: have a consistent message)

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor

Rick Santorum won eleven states — that’s nothing to sneeze at. Still, I can’t help thinking he could have done even better.

On the heels of his decision to suspend his campaign, there will be plenty of campaign postmortems penned. But the HuffPost’s Jon Ward has, perhaps, already nailed it.

As Ward notes, Santorum occasionally stumbled upon an inspiring message:

“If government is going to get smaller, then people have to get bigger,” Santorum said. “And that means they have to stretch out more, they have to do more things. But how beautiful is that? How beautiful is that that you’re going to have to do more to help those in need in our society?”

… This was a message with a soul, an appeal to freedom and to people’s better instincts, and simultaneously an acknowledgement of the question that many ask of those who want to shrink government: “Then what?”

(Imagine that! — a leader who summons us to follow our better angels.)

This could have been effective. But Santorum didn’t consistently drive this sort of transcendent message:

Combined with Santorum’s focus on reviving manufacturing, there was potential in these words to attract fiscal conservatives who want less government regulation and taxation, along with religious values voters, libertarian-minded Republicans, and blue-collar voters of both parties.

And it stood in contrast to Romney’s uninspiring promise to reprogram the economy. Romney’s core message had so far failed to connect or rouse conservatives so much that one well-connected Republican consultant who supports Romney called his candidacy “a campaign about nothing.”

However, Santorum drifted away from the “people have to get bigger” line. He talked about variations of that idea, but not consistently.

(Emphasis mine.)

Santorum, of course, faced a plethora of problems — many of which he couldn’t control. He couldn’t retroactively change the fact that he had supported most Bush-era big government policies, nor could he change the fact that Mitt Romney could outspend him many times over. And, of course, he couldn’t change the fact that The Drudge Report was seemingly out to get him.

But what he could have changed — what might have made a huge difference — would have been consistently driving an inspiring and emotional message that contrasted with Romney’s more technocratic one.

This is easier said than done. Driving a message in a messy and crowded world requires constant repetition. You must pick one thing you absolutely want the audience to know, and then repeat it over and over and over again. And it’s not just what you say, it’s also what you don’t say. You must be disciplined. Otherwise, the message gets muddled.

Santorum should have used written stump speeches. One discordant word can undermine the music of an entire speech. But Santorum favored extemporaneous speeches, and so his message was almost always watered down. It was typically prose, rarely poetry.

Had he balanced it right, Santorum was positioned to simultaneously drive a populist message and a more hopeful, optimistic, transcendent one. But his populist message never really sunk in. Do you think the average Republican voter in Ohio or Michigan knew about his plan that favored American manufacturing? I doubt it. And his more positive message (essentially “compassionate conservatism” by a different name) was frequently undermined by his harsher rhetoric about gay marriage, etc.

To be sure, he over-performed. He ran a respectable race. But we will never know just how good it could have been. Santorum never really honed or repeated his message. And thus, he deprived the voters of that clear choice.