Be Careful What You Wish For

Rick Santorum has shown incredible perseverance so far in this GOP primary season.  Initially considered as a bit player, he has rocketed to national prominence on the strength of some strong primary and caucus wins, and now deserves at least legitimate discussion as a GOP nominee.  Anyone (including Mr. Santorum) who claims to have predicted his degree of relevancy this late in the race should seriously have their honesty questioned.  And yet, here he is.

It is true that Mr. Romney, his main rival and the current frontrunner, is a deeply flawed candidate.  His shifting stances on hot-button issues such as abortion and universal health care are well documented.  His wealth leads to a potentially very accurate and thus lethal charge of being “out of touch”.  And his recent campaign strategy of “vote for me, I’m inevitable anyway” reeks of defensiveness and pushiness at the same time.

Mr. Santorum, however, is arguably no better–and perhaps worse off.  He is a staunch conservative, but his views on most social issues steer far right of the majority of the American populace.  His economic credentials are questionable, as is his foreign policy experience.  His last foray into politics ended in an 18 point shellacking in his home state.

Perhaps a reason for his surprising success can be found in the contests so far.  I have neither the time nor the expertise of great political (and baseball statistician) Nate Silvers, but some trends are too clear to miss.  If one evaluates the states that hold primaries (as opposed to caucuses) and separates them according to open (anyone can vote) v. closed (only registered republicans can vote) primaries, we have the following results:

Date State Type of Primary State Results Santorum v. Romney National Polls Santorum v. Romney


New Hampshire Closed




South Carolina Open




Florida Closed




Missouri Open




Arizona Closed




Michigan Open




Ohio Open




Oklahoma Closed




Tennessee Open




Vermont Open



(For the sake of simplicity, I have only compared Santorum and Romney and removed states where one or the other was not on the ballot, or that any major candidate claims as their home state.  National polls are from RCP polling data (average of polls) on the date of the primary).

In states with open primaries Santorum tends to outperform his national polling data significantly–in fact, by an average of 11.5 points.  In states with closed primaries, he tends to underperform compared to national polling by an average of 11.75 points.  That is over a 23 point swing!

Although this is not a complete analysis (accounting for regional differences, etc), the magnitude of the difference is clearly significant.  The difference in the type of primaries is entirely comprised of the ability of Democrats and Independents to vote.  It is not a stretch to surmise that Mr. Santorum and his extreme right wing views on social issues, his vitriol towards President Obama, and his radical  religious rhetoric does not embody significant crossover appeal.

It thus stands to consideration that the Democrats (and perhaps independents) are using the open primaries to help nominate Mr. Santorum.  In their eyes, this is a win-win situation–they either succeed in propping up a “straw-man”, who (at least in their estimation) is an easier candidate for Mr. Obama to beat in November, or they help deplete Mr. Romney’s war chest by using Mr. Santorum as a surrogate with which to attack the front runner.

A similar strategy was espoused by Rush Limbaugh in 2008 and dubbed “Operation Chaos” as he urged his listeners to participate in open primaries to drag out the Democratic nominating process, and it has been reborn this year by the Daily Kos, and dubbed “Operation Hilarity.”  The scary thing is, such tactics may actually work.

The Democrats who are doing this are playing a dangerous game.  By swinging for the fences, they are hoping for a home run–ie, President Obama walking to re-election against who they see is an inferior candidate.  But if they succeed in influencing the nomination, they will have helped nominate an extreme social conservative and religious radical, and given him the confidence that no race is out of reach.  At that point, all it would take is one damning picture or quote released at the right time to help create… President Santorum.  And then, perhaps, President Romney wouldn’t look so bad to these Democrats.

Leave a comment


  1. Ben Pradhan

     /  March 12, 2012

    Aamer, I disagree with the term “deeply-flawed candidate.” It would be appropriate to use if he were the only one. I have always found it disturbing when one party-affiliate tries to label another party’s candidate as a flip-flopper and inconsistent, when in fact pretty much all candidates are badly flawed and equally vacillant. People become fans of their party’s candidate, as if he is a saint or a football player they are rooting for. When it comes to voting for one of only two parties, it is always comes down to who you consider the “lesser of two evils.”

    • Ben, your point is well taken, but the term was definitely not meant to imply that any of Mr. Romney’s competitors are not flawed… Just to convey that many, even in his own party, do not consider him a perfect candidate– a saint or a football player to be rooting for. Even some of his biggest fans are not blind to his flaws.

  2. Ben Pradhan

     /  March 12, 2012

    Yes, and in today’s world of journalism, the partisanship is so evident. You can easily tell which way the “journalist” is leaning. I swear, your opinions are less biased than any news network these days.

  3. Emory

     /  March 13, 2012

    I am confident that Mr. Obama will beat anyone the Repubs nominate for president. Santorum is doing well because it’s primarily the true believers who come out to vote in primaries (no pun intended). A few Democrats may make the effort to vote for him to cause some chaos but hardly enough to make a difference. Santorum appeals to super right wing types, and they tend to be the ones who vote. Fortunately, there aren’t enough of them to ultimately make a difference. Regardless of which Repub candidate gets the nod, Our Mr. Obama will win this election like he won the last, and it won’t even be that close.

    Thanks for your blog, Dr. J. It is thought provoking and encouraging.

  4. A lot of Santorum’s allure seems to be that Romney is the Anti-Christ in word, thought and deed. All Santorum has to run on is his extreme Christianity which in itself has nothing to do with the teachings of Christ. Both spew anti LGBT, planned parenthood,Misogynistic rhetoric. The Southern yea entire Bible Belt vote is prepared to give the vote to anyone that is NOT Black and is NOT Barack Obama (the “accused” Muslim, erudite, socialist.
    We here in the USofA live in at least two different worlds. I embrace Barack Obama entirely. The pride that swells in my bosom hasn’t been felt by me since the “White” Camelot in this country. What an honest, sincere, brilliant and loving family. On the other hand the Republican hatred is seething with bile. From Speaker Boehner, himself completely out of control and over his head, to Eric Cantor and Mitch McConnell who vow openly to make Mr. Obama a one term president.
    I fail to understand how any Gay, female, Black, poor person in this country could feel any more threatened or disenfranchised than by the Republican possibilities looming large on the upcoming convention horizon.
    It’s in this insane environment that people are trying to predict by the old charts and historical anecdotal stories who will win (if this happens by then and if that happens by today). I feel that all bets are off. I have no idea why Christians in this country feel so abused that they are verging on a crusade. The vast wasteland of uneducated American people no longer use the Constitution and Bill of Rights as a litmus test, the bible (which is probably the only book they own) is their moral and spiritual compass and has no business in politics.
    Romney may indeed be the Republican candidate by the almighty dollar sign only! In the most recent California gubernatorial election money was no accepted as the legal tender for Meg Whitman (formerly CEO of Ebay). Former governor Jerry Brown was re-elected after a very long hiatus, not by money and not for love but for disdain for the selling of California.
    My fervent desire is for reality to ring across the land and Barack Obama will be re-elected.


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