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Why isn't Rick Santorum the 2016 GOP frontrunner?
After all, the Republican Party has a consistent record of nominating the runner-up from the previous presidential contest
 
Why not Rick Santorum?
Why not Rick Santorum? Scott Olson/Getty Images

In just about every presidential election since 1980, the Republican Party has nominated the runner-up from the previous contest. In 1980, 1976 almost-ran Ronald Reagan won the GOP nod; in 1988, Republicans went for 1980 second-placer George H.W. Bush; in 1996, it was Bob Dole, who came in second in 1988; 2008 brought us John McCain, the No. 2 in 2000; and the 2008 runner-up, Mitt Romney, was the nominee in 2012.

Who came in second place in the 2012 Republican primaries? Rick Santorum. The socially conservative former senator from Pennsylvania is giving every indication that he will run again in 2016, says Byron York at The Washington Examiner, "and yet now, no one — no one — is suggesting Santorum will be the frontrunner in 2016, should he choose to run." Why not? And is everyone wrong to write him off?

This week, Santorum is visiting Iowa, York points out, "where Republicans are excited about Sen. Ted Cruz, where they're curious about Gov. Scott Walker, where they want to hear from Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Rand Paul and other new faces." The media is curious about those new faces, too. But Santorum won 11 primaries and caucuses — including Iowa's — for a reason, York says.

Each of the 2012 GOP presidential candidates had their moment in the lead, but "Santorum was the one who came closest to a position on the economy that might appeal to middle-income voters alienated by both parties," York says:

At nearly every stop, Santorum talked about voters who haven't been to college, who aren't the boss, who are out of work or afraid of being out of work. And then, when millions of those very people stayed away from the polls in November.... Briefly put, Romney lost because he failed to appeal to the millions of Americans who have seen their standard of living decline in recent decades. Of all the GOP's possible candidates, Santorum has the most cogent analysis of that loss, and a plan to avoid repeating it in 2016. [Washington Examiner]

In many ways, York makes a compelling argument. "Based on resume, Santorum is a much more plausible presidential candidate and potential president than [Pat] Buchanan or [Steve] Forbes," the also-rans of the 1996 campaign who were nothing more than a blip in 2000, says Pete Spiliakos at First Things. But Santorum is being lumped in with them instead of Dole and Romney and McCain. "He really isn't getting the respect he deserves."

There are some reasons for that, Spiliakos concedes. Santorum didn't run a very tight campaign, he would often ramble in his primary-night speeches, and in the debates he would sometimes lose his temper and couldn't "seem to avoid getting into self-destructive arguments." But these are things that "could probably be mitigated with more money and staffing to take care of the nuts and bolts and help him prepare remarks," Spiliakos says.

Of course, not everyone is on board with the Santorum-as-frontrunner argument. Santorum's fund-raising problems in 2012 weren't an accident, says Daniel Larison at The American Conservative. His strident social conservatism on birth control and abortion turned off even some Republicans, and even York's boosting of Santorum's focus-on-the-little-guy economic message misses just "how allergic many in the GOP are to anything that sounds like economic populism."

Throw in Santorum's foreign policy vulnerabilities — he's "fanatically hawkish in a party that is moving gradually in the other direction," toward Rand Paul — says Larison, and its pretty clear that "if you wanted to invent a politician who could alienate several different parts of the Republican coalition all at once, you would design someone like Santorum."

In the end, says James Joyner at Outside the Beltway, "Santorum may be 'open' to running for president again but he's not the front-runner. Indeed, he's simply not going to be the nominee." Yes, there was that brief moment, right after the Iowa caucuses, when "Santorum seemed like a plausible nominee," but he pretty "quickly revealed himself to be an angry nut trying to tap into petty resentments."

Santorum simply comes across as harsh and extreme, even to die-hard Republicans. While it's true that the GOP has a tradition of nominating the guy whose "turn" it is, my strong guess is that, as when George W. Bush was nominated in 2000, none of the candidates from last time around will be relevant. Mitt Romney almost certainly won't run again. Santorum hit his ceiling in 2012.... I don't have any sense who the 2016 nominee will be this far out. The party is still sorting out its identity, which the 2014 midterms may or may not contribute to solving. But I'd bet good money that it won't be Rick Santorum. [Outside the Beltway]

 
Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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