Too Early to Think About 2016? Don't Tell Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum is visiting nearly all of Iowa’s 99 counties this summer, traveling to small towns and large events in his Ram 1500 pickup. As Santorum takes steps to begin a repeat of his Iowa-heavy campaign from 2012, very few doubt that he envisions himself a presidential contender.

In the 10 months since President Obama’s victory, Santorum has spoken or written publicly on everything from anti-abortion-rights legislation to gun control to the role of religion in public life. Even more recently, Santorum has become the CEO of a faith-based film company. The Dallas-based EchoLight Studios produces and markets “faith-based family films,” albeit conservative ones.

Using language such as “faith-based” and “family,” Santorum attempts to create a moral discourse for the 2016 campaign. The danger, however, is that Democrats will allow him to do it. All too often, progressives condescend in listening to people of faith, but an effective 2016 for the left will require employing the best of the Christian left's toolbox. One could argue that non-religious progressives are more hospitable to faith-based discourse now, at a time when protests at state legislatures across the country have been led by religious leaders.

Santorum’s visits to Iowa and leadership at EchoLight reveal the early stages of what a 2016 Santorum campaign will look like. In his appearance earlier this summer on The Huckabee Show, Santorum said that “entertainment also can be strength and light for people who want to be uplifted and reinforced in their values.” As he travels across Iowa, Santorum appears to be hoping that Iowans will connect with EchoLight — and to a larger extent, his particular brand of social traditionalism mixed with a populist streak.

Santorum’s early talk of a 2016 run is filled with theological underpinnings, saying this week that “I’m going to work where God needs me, and if that’s another presidential run, I’m open to that.” This sort of direct appeal to divine calling appears to strike a very different tone from the Romney campaign's, which many Republicans believe marginalized the party's socially conservative base. A Hillary Clinton challenge in the general election, however, would present a clear obstacle for Santorum’s hijacking of religious language. Clinton, a committed United Methodist, has long presented her political ambitions in the language of faith.

Why, though, is Santorum breaking ground in Iowa with the caucuses seemingly a lifetime away? With no other clear contenders this early in the game, Santorum is banking on the possibility that being first will carry weight in a potentially potent primary field. Santorum appears to be trying to redirect the GOP issue focus for the years ahead. Arguing that the Tea Party’s hard driving focus on the economy misses the important social issues for many conservatives, he hopes to reposition the debate to areas where he thinks he can shine — abortion, faith, and gay marriage.

While this may appeal to parts of the GOP base, this path is not without dangers for Santorum. As America moves to more progressive positions on social issues, it is likely that he will alienate even more moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats. The Republican Party, on the other hand, has learned a great deal from moderate candidates in their party — Mitt Romney in 2012, Bob Dole in 1996, and George Bush in 1992. They all lost.

Whether Santorum will last as a GOP contender is largely a question of his wallet. But as the summer moves forward, Santorum will continue to visit Iowa living rooms, show off his films, and wait for 2016 to come.