Two themes have emerged from the Rick Santorum campaign over recent weeks. One, he loses when he is outspent. Two, that the media is treating him unfairly over his remark that Obama might be preferable to Romney. He is right for most part about both, but being right won’t help him.
The first one, regarding spending, has come out after all of Santorum’s recent primary defeats. When he wins, as in Louisiana, he attributes that win to being the “authentic conservative.” When he loses, as in Florida, Ohio and Illinois, he attributes the defeat to being outspent 5 to 1 or 20 to 1 or whatever the relevant ratio is.
The unintended message of that is, Rick Santorum stands to lose a whole lot of states if he is the GOP nominee in the fall because he will be outspent in them, and when he is outspent, he loses.
Here’s why: Rick Santorum’s campaign has not been able to raise money on a par with Mitt Romney. Romney has consistently held a massive money advantage over nearly all of his rivals, including Santorum. In the fall, the Obama campaign is likely to have a massive war chest to spend. If Santorum cannot compete with Romney’s fundraising, how can he possibly compete with Obama’s? Being the GOP nominee will come with some built-in fundraising help, but he has not achieved parity with Romney to date.
The second unintended message, regarding the media, again betrays a fundamental weakness on Santorum’s part. Last week, coming out of the Illinois primary, Santorum said the following during a stop in San Antonio:
“You win by giving people a choice. You win by giving people the opportunity to see a different vision for our country, not someone who’s just going to be a little different than the person in there. If you’re going to be a little different, we might as well stay with what we have instead of taking a risk with what may be the Etch A Sketch candidate of the future.”
He later had to walk that back, and then scolded the media for taking a line he has often used and turned it into a problem for him. Santorum is right, he has been using variations of that line for a long time. It’s his core case that he would make a better nominee than Romney. It became an issue, though, when the Romney campaign decided to make it one. Romney’s camp came out of Illinois with a major victory in hand and a major endorsement in the offing, but Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom’s “Etch A Sketch” comment blew out the victorious Romney message. They needed to change the subject back to Santorum quickly, and it looks like they did, by turning that Santorum line against him. The media, wanting a new line in the campaign narrative, played along.
This sequence of events shows that the Romney campaign is dictating the terms of the primary campaign onto the Santorum camp. Santorum is being forced to respond to the Romney campaign’s tactics and media maneuvers. If Santorum cannot outmaneuver Romney’s campaign now, what hope does it possibly have of outmaneuvering Obama’s campaign in the fall? The media, as we all well know, will live in Obama’s pocket once a GOP nominee is named. The Republicans will be fighting uphill. Setting policy and records aside for a moment, we will need a candidate who can give as good as it gets from the other side. Santorum has not demonstrated that he is that candidate. He has allowed the Romney camp to take one his core arguments away from him.
Taken together, Santorum’s unintended narratives are that he will be outspent and outmaneuvered, more in the general election than he has already been in the primary.