With the unexpected rise of Rick Santorum in the GOP presidential field, his eight vote second place finish in IA and his blatant attempts to appeal to the “Anti-Romney” vote two serious questions must be asked.  What does Rick Santorum bring to the GOP field?  Who does he represent? 

Rick Santorum’s roots are modest.  He was born in VA and raised in the blue-collar areas of Berkeley County, WV and Butler County, PA.  At the age of 23 Santorum showed off his wits bt getting a Masters in Business Administration at the University of Pittsburgh.  Santorum worked throughout his college career.  A mere six years later he received his law degree and began practicing.  From there Santorum got into politics at the state and national level.

Santorum’s political resume is as impressive as his education background.  He served two terms in the US House and then two terms as the freshman Senator from Pennsylvania.  The one asterisk on his record is his 18 point loss to Bob Casey Junior in his 2006 reelection bid (bad year for Republicans nationally). Since then Santorum has continued to be engaged in politics and continued to practice law.

Santorum’s entrance into the GOP field was largely unnoticed.  He did not have a national following, was not well-known outside of establishment circles, and had no major  backing to begin his campaign.  What Santorum had was a blue-collar background, an impressive political resume, a strong work and family ethic as well as socially conservative beliefs.  Up until two weeks ago Santorum was largely an unknown to the nation.  But no so to voters of Iowa.  As candidates rose and fell in the primary Santorum was visiting every one of IA’s 99 counties.  Personally, Santorum was connecting to voters through his background.  So inevitably when Newt Gingrich’s campaign flailed after being crucified by attack ads Santorum was there to rise just as the vote neared.  As a result Santorum finished a strong second and gained national recognition overnight.

So what does Santorum really bring to the GOP field?  The remaining crop of candidates is still full of red-blooded social conservatives such as Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry.  Mitt Romney has moved to the right on social issues.  Jon Huntsman has generally avoided them though even he claims to be pro-life and against gay marriage.  So Santorum does not uniquely bring socially conservative positions to the field.  What about fiscal conservatism?  Not really.  Perry, Gingrich and even Romney can all make claims they are more conservative then Santorum.  Afterall, Santorum brought billions to the state of PA as Senator with his influence in the Senate Republican Conference and the Foreign Relations Committee.

So what does Santorum bring to the GOP field?  Populism.  Much as Mike Huckabee, and to a lesser extent GW did, Santorum brings representation to the little guy, the blue-collar, white working class.  Santorum’s brand of populism is as much influenced by regional aspects as by ideological.  Huckbee’s brand of conservatism was very much Southern.  Ditto for GW, though he downplayed it until his 2004 reelection bid.  Santorum’s brand is different.  Mixed in with his staunch defense for family values and life are constant mentions about the loss of manufacturing, industries devastated by the recession and the workers affected.  PA and WV have always been known for their coal, gas and steel industries.  When the recession hit the steel industry in PA was devastated.  In a way Santorum brings directly to these people.  This is something Romney, Perry, Huntsman, and Gingrich cannout hit to the way Santorum can.  His background and his upbringing give him an air of authenticity to this set of forgotten voters.

So who does Santorum represent in the GOP coalition?  Keep in mind for the purposes of this discussion the GOP coalition consists of upper class white suburbanites, middle class suburbanites, rural fiscal and social conservatives and then blue-collar voters.  The obvious answer here would be he almost singlehandedly represents the interests of blue-collar voters (rural and urban).  Romney best represents the interests of the elites in the GOP.  Gingrich cross over to represent the same voters Romney does but also middle class suburbanites and rural social and conservative voters.  Ditto for Perry.  But no candidate seems to epitomize the interests of blue-collar voters like Santorum.  When he speaks of promoting democracy abroad, protectionism and the loss of manufacturing and the moral fabric of the country coming undone he is speaking to these voters.  Some in the GOP coalition, such as say libertarians and the party elites may not view this as heresy but they best be wary of how they touch this. 

Blue-collar voters have been moving into the GOP since 1980 with Ronald Reagan.  There have been hiccups when these voters have moved back to Democrats such as in the 92 and 96 presidential elections and the 2006 midterm election.  But for the most part these voters have stayed true to the Reagan Democratic mantle.  In 2008 when Obama was carrying the nation by seven points he was losing blue-collar voters.  In 2010 blue-collar voters went for the GOP by a whopping 30 points.  It also needs to be kept in mind in 2010 they made up almost 40% of the electorate whereas in 2008 they were smaller. 

For the GOP Santorum may represent the future of the party.  Political coalitions rise and fade, are numerous and tend to have short lives.  The current GOP coalition is sure to pass as well.  The New Democrat Coalition established by Bill Clinton of southern whites, blue-collar workers and minorities is gone.  The 2000-08 Bush coalition of upper class suburbanites and social conservatives is also fading.  The liberal coalition established under Obama in 2008 faded in 2010 and its future is uncertain in 2012.  For the GOP the voters that came to the party in 2010 are not those to build a new coalition with.  Women have never been strong GOP voters, likewise gays.  Suburban and rural voters came back to the party, as did blue-collar voters and social conservatives in a big way.  And in this the future of the GOP perhaps can be seen.  As more of these voters move into the GOP fold (permanently as they are rejected by the modern Democratic Party) it is likely new suburban voters will move to the Democratic Party (depending how liberal it becomes and how populist the GOP becomes).  Santorum’s brand of politics seems well suited for a future coalition for the GOP.

Santorum brings a blue-collar background and appeal to the GOP field.  He represents a set of voters that have long voted Republican but have not had their voices heard.  And yet when they turn to Democrats their interests are soundly rejected in favor of minorities and the liberal/moderate technocrats that dominate the Democratic Party.  Santorum may or may not win the GOP nomination.  But the group of voters he represents is important as is his brand of politics.

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