Monday, February 20, 2012

High Information Voters and Rick Santorum

A major narrative that's working itself out in the Republican Primary is as follows:
  1. Today Obama wins 10 points over Santorum and 6 points over Romney. If you wanted to pick a better candidate for the general election it would have to be Romney. Furthermore: Romney has "negatives" such as having said he's a progressive or not being staunchly pro-life. In a general election environment these might actually be advantages.
  2. Conversely, Rick Santorum is staunchly anti-gay and seems to have said some things that sound perhaps old-fashioned about women. He is, quite possibly, misunderstood--but even so, in the GOP being anti-gay is okay (it's practically a platform plank) and being old-fashioned about women isn't fatal (however misunderstood he is)--but in the general? Those views could be toxic.
  3. Finally, when you consider the organization of the two campaigns there's no comparison. Romney has a massive war-machine and Santorum isn't even on the ballot in all the states. His "great fundraising" puts him at less than Romney spent in Florida.
  4. Given this, combined with the fact that, today, Santorum is give-or-take 6 points ahead of Romney, it seems to a lot of people like the nomination is heading for a second Obama term.
To people who are following the election closely--so called High Information Voters--who are carefully examining each candidate it seems absurd that people might not already know who Rick Santorum is and already have solidified opinions on him.

But that may not be the case. There is a case for preferring the underdog at this point. Specifically that case is that in 1979 and early 1980 President Carter, although not doing well, was considered a strong favorite over Ronald Reagan. Rick Santorum supporters have a narrative that explains how this played out then--and how it might play out today.

The Narrative
The story that explains this is as follows: "Back in 1980 Carter was polling way ahead of this guy--you may have heard of him--Ronald Reagan--but, as people came to know Reagan, they recognized what a great leader he was. The same will happen to Obama who is just so Carter-like (see both of their economies!) it's not even funny!"

In this narrative the more things look lik 1980 the more the Republicans are going to win by.

Taking A Look At The Narrative
In order for this narrative to be true a few things would have to line up. The first is whether or not Rick Santorum is sufficiently introduced to voters both in the Republican Primary and to the general public (who are presumably paying less attention). The second is whether the conditions that allowed Reagan to overtake Carter are in play. The third is, of course, whether or not Santorum can be 'revealed' to be a Ronald Reagan when the lights are shone on him.

Are Voters Yet To Be Introduced to Rick Santorum?
The first is that it presumes that voters do not yet know Rick Santorum. There is some evidence for this. As of last year Santorum had a 44% name recognition amongst Republicans (which is low--Tim Pawlenty also had about 40% when he jumped in and it was considered a problem). On the other hand, in 1976 Ronald Reagan had, it seems, around 76%. We don't know where his Name Recognition is today but one can assume that after innumerable debates with record-level audiences that the base has, at least, heard of him (although he has not gotten as much air-time in the debates as the other front-runners and most of the debates are now passed).

Additionally, it seems that Santorum is running at least some autobiographical / introduction ads in Michigan and Arizona.

Conclusion: Like Reagan, Santorum is not well known nationally yet. It is probably possible for perceptions of him to change.

Is The Carter/Reagan Dynamic In Play?
This is a much tougher question since it can be evaluated amongst many, many axes. Let's assume for the moment that Obama is Carter. This is a stretch (Osama Bin Laden was found and killed under Obama's watch--and he has persecuted the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with reasonable ferocity, for example)--but it is fair to say that there is pain at the pump and the economy is not where voters wish it were. The "are you better or worse off four years ago" question might not do well since there are the makings of a recovery but we'll allow that to stand.

Let's look at a couple of other indicators.

The first is that unlike Reagan v. Carter, at this stage in the race there is no clear, strong Republican front runner. This is unusual. Note that the article linked is from last year and it looks at the February of the year before each election. In each case the winner had a lead--perhaps a substantial one (although, notably, Reagan's +5 over Ford is the lowest of the bunch). However, in this case--at the same time frame--Santorum is not in the top 3. For him to win now (Romney is) would be a significant departure from the regular mode of nomination).

Secondly, we can look at Favorability. Apparently Reagan was pretty even which is reasonably consistent with Santorum (whose favorability may actually be better).

Conclusion: Unlike Reagan, Santorum was not a traditional favorite early on--but, like Reagan (and unlike, say Gingrich) he is seen in a reasonably positive light by those who do know him.

Is He Reagan?
This is the big one and, unfortunately, it's unanswerable. There is just no way to know right now. I strongly doubt that in 2012 Reagan would have been talking about gay marriage or state's rights to ban contraception--but to be fair, to a large extent Santorum has those questions thrust upon him (and that's due, yes, to his writings on these issues). Reagan oversaw a fairly visionary approach to the cold war (it was not only spending but persistent maneuvers that forced the Soviet Union to try to keep their posture). I don't see Santorum presenting a radical defeat to world terror--but it is possible.

Conclusion: Too early to tell.

Over All
I expected to do some research and determine the current Santorum-is-our-new-Reagan narrative was full of holes. At this stage, having done about 45 minutes of looking into the actual numbers I can't say that with authority. My gut tells me that Santorum, as a candidate, is extremely attractive to the evangelical base because of his positions. My gut also tells me that, as a candidate, his lack of being-Romney makes him extremely attractive to the anti-GOP Establishment base.

I do not think the two of these will combine to make him a great communicator with attraction from the general electorate--but, again, it is hard to tell.

Specifically I suspect that his focus on social issues (even if these questions are thrust at him, he shows no reluctance to answer and is certainly not softening his stance), lack of executive experience, and past history will make him a far less attractive candidate in the general election.

I also suspect, as I said before that I think what's at work in this election is a focus on the culture-war more than the economy or specific policy. I think this, also, is a dead-ender. Most of America doesn't want a culture war.

One way or another, though, we're all going to get introduced to Rick Santorum and it won't be in the carefully controlled environment of a debate. How he fares will, to a large extent. cement his persona on the national stage. If that works for him ... hey, who knows? He could be the next Reagan!

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