Can a True Conservative Like Rick Santorum Win the GOP Nomination?

“It’s now or never for conservative voters,” GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum wrote in a letter to supporters on Tuesday. “We can either unite now behind one candidate and have a conservative standard bearer in 2012, or have the GOP establishment choose another moderate Republican who will have a difficult time defeating Barack Obama in November.”

Newt Gingrich echoed similar sentiments on NBC Wednesday. Referring to Mitt Romney he said, “This is not a conservative Republican. He is not going to win the nomination.” 

Santorum and Gingrich’s logic poses an interesting question. They imply that a moderate Republican will have a more difficult time defeating Obama than a strictly conservative Republican. Yet, this logic conflicts with claims that Romney is the most electable Republican candidate. Thus begging the question, can a truly conservative Republican win the nomination? With the most conservative candidate hopefuls performing poorly in Iowa, the success of libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), and the unstable emergence of Santorum, the answer appears to be no.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Texas Governor Rick Perry, and Gingrich have made their moves under the label of conservative Republicans — and the trio finished sixth, fifth, and fourth in Iowa, respectively. Bachmann, the frontrunner in August, withdrew from the election after garnering just 5% of the total vote. After Perry’s fifth place finish left him at an embarrassing cost of $333 per vote, he announced that he would remain in the race the morning after he announced plans to reconsider whether he would stay. Though he may find some success in South Carolina, his next major stop, his future does not look promising. Similarly, despite Gingrich’s endorsement by the New Hampshire Union-Leader, his campaign has lost momentum and money, and his nomination is doubtful. Although these candidates each had different policies (and histories) that distinguished them, their one unifying factor was that they were all conservative — and that they all failed in Iowa.

These failures are juxtaposed by the relative success of Paul, who won 21.5% of the vote in Iowa, only three points behind the front-running duo Romney and Santorum. Only 20% of registered Republicans in Iowa showed up to the caucuses on Tuesday — roughly the same number that appeared in 2008, even with the increased mobilization and support of the GOP this time around. With thousands within that number being Independents who came to vote for Paul, he proves better able to incite more passionate support than his conservative rivals. And this could be good news for Romney too, because if Paul eventually drops out, his supporters that do not defect to Obama are far more likely to side with Romney than a more conservative candidate. 

Santorum, the truest conservative of Iowa’s top three, still needs to prove he has any capability of long-term success. He certainly has a conservative record, with efforts to limit the teaching evolution, enact welfare reform, and take on anti-government fights, such as preventing the National Weather Service from releasing data offered by private companies. But he has a small history of moderation, as well. If he is counting on winning only by setting himself up as the conservative to Romney’s liberality, numbers from Iowa show that his candidacy is far from stable.

Statistics about the distribution of votes in Iowa show that Santorum’s success might not be able to translate to a successful nomination. Romney did best among voters who were most concerned about the economy and who just wanted to beat Obama (despite Santorum’s claim otherwise). Santorum, on the other hand, did best among those who identify as very conservative and born-again Christians, and those who said abortion was their most important issue. But such categories as Santorum relies on are not as prevalent in other states as they are in Iowa. Ultimately, the economy and beating Obama will be the top issue, and in these categories Romney receives the most Republican support.

With conservative candidates being slowly weeded out, most hope of one being elected rides on the success or failure of Santorum. The rapidity of his rise indicates that it is most likely just another wave to add to the rise and falls of conservatives over the last several months. Whether or not Santorum proceeds to pose a real threat to his remaining, more moderate competitors, chances are a conservative is not going to win this nomination­­.

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