Lessons From Rick Santorum's Campaign: Ball Edition

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.

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

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