Lessons From Rick Santorum's Campaign: Ball Edition

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The rise of Mitt Romney's most formidable -- and unexpected -- foe exposed the divisions, power centers, and dynamics of today's Republican party.

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Few aspects of the 2012 Republican presidential primary were more surprising than the rise of Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who suspended his campaign Tuesday in the face of family illness and a daunting delegate deficit. Mitt Romney, who now stands as the nominee-in-waiting, certainly never expected to find his most formidable opponent in a sweater-vested culture warrior who lost his last reelection bid by 18 points.

He fell short in the end, but in the process of upending the 2012 contest, Santorum's candidacy provided a revealing glimpse into the divisions and dynamics of today's Republican Party. Here are a few things we learned from his candidacy.

1. Iowa still matters. As the clock ticked down on 2011, Hawkeye State handwringing was rampant. No candidate had built a robust organization in the traditional first caucus state, and with front-runner Romney openly dissing the state's hallowed rituals of presidential politics, Iowans worried they were becoming irrelevant. But one man believed in the power of Iowa above all else, and that was Santorum. He couldn't afford to build a professional caucus machine, but he worked the state tirelessly, holding more than 300 events and personally winning over the social-conservative activists and pastors who hold so much power there. In the final days before the caucuses, Santorum suddenly surged up from single digits and ended up beating Romney by 34 votes. Iowa did exactly what Iowa boosters say the state is supposed to do in presidential politics: It gave a hearing to an underfunded, retail-based, shoe-leather campaigner who took the time to look voters in the eye and speak to their concerns. It also did exactly what critics of Iowa's role fault the state for doing: It elevated a far-right social conservative zealot with little appeal to the national center and a version of conservatism that horrifies Beltway elites. For better or for worse, though, those who said Iowa wouldn't matter were proven wrong. The state shaped the GOP primary more than any other single contest.

2. The religious right matters. The assumption going into the 2012 campaign was that this Republican primary would revolve around the fresh, feisty spirit of the Tea Party, whose zeal and devotion to conservative ideological purity did so much to shape the 2010 midterm elections. But the Tea Party never found a focus in the presidential race. Michele Bachmann managed to channel its energy for a while, as did Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich; Rick Perry never caught on the way he was supposed to. Meanwhile, it was by appealing to an older, more established right-wing base -- the Christian right -- that Santorum ultimately succeeded in throwing Romney off his game. Romney, for his part, thought he could bypass the party's social conservatives, and didn't bother to court their power brokers as assiduously as he did in 2008 -- upsetting them and leaving him open to challenge on that front. Santorum's unabashed call to the family-values crowd, bringing divisive, supposedly passe issues like abortion and gay marriage front and center, was an important reminder: The Tea Party may be new and exciting, but it remains chaotic and inchoate as an institutional force in the GOP, while the social conservatives, who have been around for decades, remain a potent force with the ability to strategically concentrate their clout.

3. Authenticity matters. Romney's intention from the outset -- that is, from the day he conceded the 2008 primary and began looking to the future -- was to run the safest, most controlled campaign possible. In many of the early debates, he virtually ignored his rivals, whose attempts to attack him largely failed to stick. (Remember when Rick Perry pulled out his giant-killing masterstroke, going after Romney for having had illegal immigrants work on his property in Massachusetts? It barely left a scratch.) On the stump, Romney often seemed to have nothing at all to say, giving short speeches filled with platitudes. Santorum was exactly the opposite of that style -- raw, long-winded, argumentative, with a lawyer's zeal for hashing out every detail and a true believer's knack for wearing his heart on his sleeve. It's a style that takes a while to warm up to, as Santorum's months and months mired in the 3 percent range in Iowa can attest. But the contrast with Romney's scripted artificiality was stark, and many voters responded to what they saw as Santorum's authenticity and passion, along with his compelling blue-collar personal story. It made him difficult to attack, because attempts to paint Santorum as inconsistent and a Washington insider tended to reflect back on Romney's own chief deficiencies. As Romney looks forward to the general election, his personality problem may be his biggest liability: One recent poll has him trailing President Obama by a stunning 38-point margin on the question of which candidate is more "friendly and likable." Santorum both brought this issue to the fore and ruthlessly exploited it.

4. ...but campaigns matter, too. As Romney and his super PAC set out to stop Santorum with a flood of attack ads and by mobilizing establishment support, one Santorum adviser bitterly joked that "ROMNEY: MONEY-INFRASTRUCTURE 2012" would make an awfully inspirational bumper sticker. But Romney's camp wasn't wrong to point out that the GOP nominee to take on Obama will need to be able to fundraise and build a campaign organization. Though Romney's campaign made crucial mistakes that probably prevented him from sewing up the nomination sooner, it did prevail in the end at the difficult task of making a moderate, mandate-loving Mormon from Massachusetts the Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting. And given that Romney won in the end, it would be a mistake to see the angry culture warriors of the GOP's far right as more representative of the soul of the party than the old-school country-club Republican establishment. The party is divided; from the halls of Congress to the surprising bitterness of this longer-than-expected primary, those divisions couldn't be more clear. The question Santorum's exit poses for Romney as he finally wraps up the race is how much fence-mending he must do on the right, even as he looks to the center for the November campaign.

See also: "Lessons From Rick Santorum's Campaign: Friedersdorf Edition." Who's right? Add your take in the comments.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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