Rick Santorum is often portrayed as a stubborn man of principle, an unusual politician who’ll run for president in the face of terrible poll numbers, and despite an electorate increasingly hostile to his unsettlingly passionate social conservatism. But this isn't really true. Santorum, who announced his 2016 presidential candidacy on Wednesday, is in the middle of at least his third rebranding. He’s just not very good at it.
In his announcement speech in Western Pennsylvania, Santorum pitched himself as a defender of the working man who also happens to be a foreign policy expert. Santorum bragged that in an issue of ISIS’s online magazine, Dabiq, “under the headline ‘In the Words of Our Enemy’ was my picture and a quote. … They know who I am, and I know who they are!” To be clear, while it would be unsettling to find your face in an ISIS magazine, it's not that hard to get ISIS to know who you are. You basically just have to talk about ISIS. In the same section, Dabiq quoted two other “enemies”: Virginia State Senator Richard Black and former CIA officer Gary Berntsen, a frequent Fox and Friends guest who has less than 1,600 followers on Twitter. Gary 2016!
For someone who is supposedly dedicated to what he thinks is right, not what is popular, a list of Santorum’s political books makes for a decent guide to the trends of the Republican Party of the last ten years. It Takes a Family, released in 2005, was a rebuttal to Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village. It is concerned with apparently controversial social issues such as women working outside the home. His 2012 book American Patriots, printed on faux antique paper, is a Tea Partyish celebration of Revolutionary War-era Americans “heroes and heroines from all walks of life” (not just white guys). Last year’s Blue Collar Conservatives is about helping the working class. (“There was a time not long ago when Americans without college degrees could expect to earn a decent and steady income in exchange for hard work.”) His publisher says, “Santorum provides a game plan for Republicans to bounce back, regain popularity, and return to the party’s original values.” It’s less a game plan for the party’s comeback than one for Santorum’s.
Santorum tried to remake himself in both of his last two losing campaigns, in 2006 and 2012. His political career began in the 90s, when Republicans were focused on welfare reform and teen moms and the crime rate, and he ran with those issues. He campaigned on welfare reform, he said single moms were "breeding more criminals" and that politicians shouldn't be afraid of "kicking them in the butt." The target of that kind of rhetoric was not lost on black voters at the time. But for a while, it worked really well. The Harrisburg Patriot News reported in July 2005, “A Santorum victory in a state that has voted Democratic in recent presidential elections would solidify his reputation within the GOP and with conservatives nationally. It would also add fuel to a rumored 2008 presidential run, party officials and analysts said.” Maybe that’s why Santorum keeps running these long-shot campaigns. He was promised this, and he can’t believe it didn’t work out for him.
But by summer 2005, Santorum was clearly in trouble, trailing opponents by as much as 14 points in polls. He was closely tied to the increasingly unpopular president, and his social conservatism had started to rub people the wrong way. In 2002, Santorum had blamed the Catholic priest sex abuse scandal on Boston’s liberal culture. In 2003, he suggested that if we allowed gay marriage, we'd have to allow "man on child, man on dog." It was "man on dog" that led to Santorum's greatest branding issue: his Google problem. Sex columnist Dan Savage held a contest to turn "santorum" into a sex term. Savage's SpreadingSantorum.com rose in Google rankings to outrank the candidate's campaign site. The top result is now a Wikipedia page for "Campaign for 'santorum' neologism," where it remains a reminder of, if not the neologism, the way that Santorum was turned into an online joke by gay rights activists.
Going into his 2006 Senate reelection campaign, Santorum's persona changed to reflect the times. Demographic trends meant bashing inner cities and women with jobs and gays had diminishing returns. The white share of the vote shrunk from 84.6 percent in 1992 to 76.3 in 2008, according to Pew Research Center. Opposition to gay marriage dropped more than 10 points from 1996 to 2006, though a majority still opposed it. In 2004, as Senate Republican Conference Committee chair, he met with presidents of historically black colleges and universities in an attempt to get the GOP to reach out to minorities. In 2005, The New York Times Magazine explained that Santorum was an earnest man of faith who'd earned endorsements from leaders in the African-American community in Philadelphia. In April 2006, his campaign staged a photo op in which Santorum packed up food for low-income people. (Alas, the TV news cameras did not show up.)
By July 2006, he was distributing a listicle titled ''Fifty Things You May Not Know About Rick Santorum," which included warm and fuzzy items like cracking down on puppy mills. The New York Times reported:
He needs to reintroduce himself over the next four months, he said, to get beyond the stereotypes. …
A kinder, gentler Rick Santorum? ''People already know about the other stuff,'' he said. ''You guys remind them every day about the other stuff. Let's tell the rest of the story.''
The listicle did not stop the senator from losing by 18 points to now-Senator Bob Casey.
During the 2012 Republican primary, Santorum faced a very different electorate, and he reshaped himself to appeal to people hurt by the Great Recession, trying to distinguish himself as the voice of the working class. He called for manufacturing subsidies. He was the son of immigrants. His grandfather “sort of coal-mined his way to freedom.” (Back in 1994, Santorum talked about how his father got his "biggest break" with World War II; he escaped the mines through the G.I. Bill, which paid for his psychology degree.) He came out against the term “middle class” because it was some kind of class warfare. He even tried to recast his signature issues, telling a Michigan crowd in February 2012, "All reporters in the back, they say, 'Oh there’s Santorum talking about social issues again.' ... No, I’m talking about freedom. I’m talking about government imposing themselves on your lives."
Santorum stuck with his new blue-collar image after he lost to Mitt Romney. “When all you do is talk to people who are owners, talk to folks who are Type As who want to succeed economically, we’re talking to a very small group of people,” he said in 2013.
“I never went to a country club until I was in college,” Santorum told the National Review recently, like a true man of the people. But now he’s blue collar plus. National Review explained:
If he runs in 2016, he says, it won’t be as a candidate defined by his Catholic, socially conservative views. He’s been there and done that, he says. In 2016, he is more likely to define himself as an economic populist and foreign-policy hawk.
In the months before his official campaign announcement, Santorum started playing up the hawk thing. In April, Santorum said that in 2016, Republicans will be “going up against a secretary of state, someone with a tremendous amount of experience and knowledge in this area—most of it wrong—but someone who's knowledgeable, someone who's an expert.” That means they “need to look at someone to go up against Mrs. Clinton who has background experience and knowledge and has gotten it right when she's gotten it wrong.” (They both supported the Iraq war.) He pointed to his the eight years he served on the Senate Armed Services Committee. At the South Carolina Freedom Summit this month, Santorm said of ISIS, “If these folks want to return to a 7th Century version of Islam, then let’s load up our bombers and bomb them back to the 7th Century.”
"Going up against a potential nominee who's a former secretary of state, it'd be good to have someone with more experience than just a briefing book for the debate,” Santorum told NPR recently. A couple weeks earlier, he told voters in Iowa, “We have to have a president who understands the difference between a friend and an enemy. … Iran, enemy. Israel, friend. It's real simple.” Briefing book? No. Little Golden Book? Yes!
Given that he's polling at about 2.3 percent, Santorum is likely hoping that the 2016 primary is something like 2012's, and voters will cycle through alternatives to the mainstream moderate Republican candidate until they get to him. What can he do to get Americans' attention? Voters rarely care that much about foreign policy. Santorum will try on a new identity. For the sake of entertainment, let's hope he'll try to compete with Hillary Clinton not on foreign policy but on being a champion of single ladies.