News & Politics

How Rick Santorum Stokes Race and Class Anxieties to Win Unlikely Primary Victories

Santorum's success in the Midwest has come through a combination of race and class-based grievances as well as his appeal to social conservatives.

Rick Santorum shocked many when he won three GOP primary contests Tuesday night, sweeping Missouri, Montana and Colorado to expose Mitt Romney's biggest weakness: the Midwest.

This past weekend, polling guru Nate Silver at the New York Times pointed out that Santorum was actually a bigger threat to Romney's perceived inevitability than Gingrich, and his victories on Tuesday cemented that point—even though Missouri's primary was nonbinding and the other two held caucuses, which are easier for candidates with a small but dedicated base to swing.

Silver noted:

With Mr. Santorum, however, you can at least draw up a coherent path to victory, one that runs through the Midwest. There is a Midwestern state left to vote at virtually every turn of the nomination calendar. After Michigan on Feb. 28 and Ohio on Super Tuesday comes Missouri (again) on March 17, when it holds its caucuses, then Illinois on March 20, Wisconsin on April 3 and Pennsylvania on April 24.

Silver pointed out that Mitt Romney is still overwhelmingly likely to end up with the nomination, but Santorum's ability to bounce back after his campaign had been written off by most observers (and was considered a joke right up until about a week before the Iowa caucuses) shakes up preconceived notions of which conservative white man is more electable.

Much has been made of Santorum's far-right views: The famed comparison of gay sex to “man-on-dog” intercourse that got him his unfortunate Google problem in the first place, his grandstanding on abortion, and his connections to a religious right desperate to have an alternative to the Mormon Romney.

But Santorum's success in Midwestern states isn't all about opposing abortion and hating gay people. Instead, what's working for him there is what brought him success in his home state of Pennsylvania, a swing state with a solid union base. What Santorum learned in Pennsylvania was to appeal to white working-class voters—the same ones Hillary Clinton invoked on the campaign trail in 2008 with her now-infamous comment about how “hardworking Americans, white Americans” were supporting her against Barack Obama, and the same ones former Pennsylvania Democratic governor Ed Rendell meant when he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that “there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate.”

Pennsylvania has been described as "Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Kentucky in between," but it's more complicated than that. It is, however, a deeply working-class state, with nearly 16 percent of its workers represented by unions, and its western side, where Santorum grew up, is far more Midwest-Rust Belt than it is Northeastern. It's a state with a split personality in many ways, and politicians from outside of Philadelphia have grown adept at playing off rural and even suburban voters against the popular perception of Philly as crime-ridden, and largely African American (who represent 43 percent of Philadelphians, as opposed to 10.8 percent of the state as a whole). Central and Western Pennsylvania may not be any better off economically than the city, but the welfare-queen rhetoric Santorum's been spouting about Obama hits a nerve in areas where people resent any of their money going to fix the city's problems—even though Philadelphia is actually an economic engine for the Keystone State.

The politics of grievance aren't new, and Newt Gingrich, like Santorum, has done his best to exploit them on the campaign trail, most successfully with a win after some pretty blatant racist statements in South Carolina. But Santorum brings to Midwesterners what Gingrich (formerly his mentor in the House) can't—that sense of being one of them, just a blue-collar guy who made it on hard work. As Marcy Wheeler noted on Tuesday night, Santorum is the only Republican candidate who can “do Orthogonian”--Rick Perlstein's famous characterization of Richard Nixon, the perennial second-tier guy who managed to make good. If Romney is the good-looking rich guy, Santorum is the geek in the sweater-vest, the guy who doesn't quite fit in but hustles, the guy who believes.

Snobbery

On the primary trail, Santorum does well against Mitt Romney with working-class voters because he is one of them—as Mike Newall at Philadelphia's CityPaper found in 2005, quoting Larry Goettler, a childhood friend of Santorum's from Butler, the now-struggling former industrial town 40 miles outside of Pittsburgh where they grew up: "This is a middle- to lower-class town ...If anything, Rick was probably economically a little below the middle. They were good people, a well-principled, blue-collar family."

Fresh from this week's victories, Santorum called Romney “a well-oiled weather vane,” saying he "had a great career in the private sector, but we're not running for CEO of the country. We're running for someone who can lead the country."

Santorum's economic plan isn't too different from what Romney would do, and it definitely favors the CEOs over the workers, but he frames it as a return to American manufacturing, a plan for job creation, even if the solutions he proposes—lowering corporate taxes further, just like all the other GOPers—wouldn't accomplish that. It's a plan aimed to sound good in crumbling factory towns that miss the middle-class union jobs created by manufacturing.

As Mike Huckabee did in 2008, saying that Romney “looks like the guy who fired you,” Santorum has polished a campaign message of attacking from below, with which he can easily pivot to attacking Obama as an elitist. In his victory speech, he stoked the crowd by saying of Obama, “He thinks he's smarter than you. He thinks he's someone who is a privileged person who should be able to rule over all of you.” And not long ago on the campaign trail, he complainedthat Obama wanting people to go to college was “snobbery”:

“I have seven kids. Maybe they’ll all go to college. But, if one of my kids wants to go and be an auto mechanic, good for him. That’s a good-paying job – using your hands and using your mind. This is the kind of, the kind of snobbery that we see from those who think they know how to run our lives.”

The anti-college sentiment isn't new, either—it goes back to Santorum's book It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good, which came out right before he lost his Senate seat to a pro-labor, socially conservative Democrat with a long family history in the state. In the book, Santorum wrote, "The notion that college education is a cost-effective way to help poor, low-skill, unmarried mothers with high school diplomas or GEDs move up the economic ladder is just wrong."

Santorum's calculated appeal to blue-collar voters extends beyond attacking his opponents. Witness his visitto the factory where his famed sweater-vests are made, in Bemidji, Minnesota, this week--a perfect photo-op with American factory workers, making products he's selling for campaign fundraising, in a state he needed to win (and did). Indeed, the sweater vest itself is symbolic of Santorum; not a suit and tie, but not the now-cliche unbuttoned shirt and rolled-up sleeves that candidates try for when they're outside of the city. It's geeky and earnest, but it seems real.

And yet like every other bit of Santorum's image, it's calculated to win over voters. "Too much attention has been spent on Santorum as the cultural ideologue and not enough on his pragmatism and political opportunism," political analyst Terry Madonna wrote. "Inside this raging bull of a conservative is a pragmatist for whom getting re-elected always trumps ideology."

And pragmatism in Pennsylvania meant less fiscal conservatism—while social conservatism was just fine, Santorum's voting record on workers' issues was actually pretty good for a right-wing Republican. He supported the rights of strikers, an increase in the minimum wage and prevailing wage protections. (Of course, now that bashing unions is the GOP's pastime du jour, Santorum's gotten on that bandwagon, which may hurt him in states like Ohio, with a fired-up labor movement battle-hardened from fighting right-wing governors' attacks on unions.)

Newall noted, “According to the National Journal, the mostly highly regarded scorekeeper on Senate voting patterns, Santorum had the least conservative voting record among the Republican leadership in 2004. In fact, 32 other Republican congressmen have more conservative voting records than Santorum.”

Of course, Santorum now spends his time attacking the social safety net that many working-class voters depend on. But he's got a solution for that, as we saw in Iowa—blaming certain groups of poor people for their own poverty. And we know which people those are, right?

Blah” People

Iowa, which wound up going to Santorum after an early count had mistakenly named Romney the victor, was the scene of his most famous—and badly handled—gaffe. He declared, “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else's money,” and then stumbled to cover his tracks, first crediting the (anti-teacher's-union) movie Waiting for Superman for his thoughts being on black children, and then denying he said the word “black” at all.

While many have noted that only 9 percent of Iowans are black, that's not the point. In fact, that kind of race-baiting talk plays better in parts of the country where the black population is small. Small like that of much of the Midwest, where Santorum has had his primary successes, and in Western and Central Pennsylvania—as Linn Washington, professor at Temple University and columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune, told me in 2008 in an extended interview about race and Pennsylvania. These are people who don't think of themselves as racist, Washington noted, but come from a part of the country where they simply don't know black people outside of the perception of the media—or the perception given by political candidates, eager to defeat the first black president.

Santorum's comments on the campaign trail have been enough to get him a condemnation from more than 40 Catholic leaders and theologians across the country, calling out their “fellow Catholics,” Santorum and Newt Gingrich, to “stop using divisive rhetoric about race and poverty on the campaign trail.”

Still, it's unlikely to stop as Santorum looks forward to a new stretch of primaries with a reinvigorated campaign. The best way to attack the social safety net while appealing to struggling voters is to paint it not as something that benefits the voters you want to win over, but as something that takes money from their pockets and gives it to people who don't deserve it, creating “dependency” and “bigger government.”

And when the face of big government is African American, and you're trying to convince an angry Republican base that you're the man to take him out, the race-baiting takes on a new urgency. As Newall noted, in 2000, the African American-run Tribune endorsed Santorum, but when his book came out with statements about abortion being similar to slavery and calls for women to stay home with the family (after he'd voted for welfare reform that pushed them into the workforce), black voters who might have supported him in the past were turned off.

To win a Republican primary and indeed a general election against Obama, Santorum won't get or need black votes. Instead, he'll be applying a tried-and-true formula of painting his opponents as out-of-touch elitists who are trying to take hard-earned money out of the pockets of working people and give it to undeserving people of color, of trying to tar Romney and Obama with the same brush—witness his South Carolina comments that Romney was just “a paler shade of what we have,” a lovely attempt at trying to bring race into an attack on a man whose religion didn't allow black men to be ordained or receive full salvation until 1978. He'll have an uphill battle against the Democrat—as Stephen Herzenberg, an economist with Pennsylvania-based Keystone Research Center, told AlterNet, “Santorum hasn’t consistently done better than other Republicans with independent working-class voters.” But Mitt Romney isn't just any other Republican, and Santorum's politics clearly made an impact with Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota's Republican primary voters this week.

In other words, if you want to know why Rick Santorum won't just go away, you have to look beyond his opposition to abortion and gay marriage—issues that certainly play well with evangelicals, but weren't enough to earn him a win with South Carolina's Christians—and look at the politics of race and class.

Sarah Jaffe is an associate editor at AlterNet, a rabblerouser and frequent Twitterer. You can follow her at @seasonothebitch.