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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.

Photo Credit: AFP


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.