On Saturday Rick Santorum received the support of a solid majority of 170 delegates for major social conservative organizations across the country. These delegates gathered in Houston to unite behind a single candidate before the South Carolina primary in a bid to halt Mitt Romney’s momentum. Back in 2008 socially conservative organizations split their support between Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson allowing John McCain to come up through the middle (following a win in New Hampshire) and win South Carolina.
Every candidate except Jon Huntsman sent a representative to the meeting but only four candidates were truly in contention for support, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul. After the first ballot only Rick Perry, Gingrich and Santorum were left in the mix. After the second round Gingrich and Santorum were left. In the third and final ballot, social conservatives, though divided, decided to back Rick Santorum over Newt Gingrich in the hopes of influencing voter opinion in South Carolina.
Rick Santorum has always attracted strong social conservative support. His stances for life, though controversial, have gained him much support among pro-life voters. Santorum is also strongly against legalizing marijuana as well as being against gay marriage.
Santorum’s political career has been made and broken by his firm stance on social issues. In 1990 when Santorum first ran for Congress (after working in state politics for a decade) he connected with voters on social issues. The district was heavily unionized and fiscally liberal but those same voters were solid social conservatives. That year Santorum succeeded in connecting with voters on social issues and turning his pro-life opponent, a Democratic Congressman, into a pro-choice opponent. Santorum narrowly won the race.
In 1992 Santorum won the same district again. In 1994 Santorum was first elected to the Senate largely on social issues. His fiscal stances really did not resonate with voters in the state but his charisma and stances on abortion and drugs allowed him to run strongly in rural counties in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Southeastern Pennsylvania had traditionally been Democratic. In 2000 Santorum won reelection again only to be defeated badly in 2006.
Santorum has not been quite in his defense of life. He has recently taken a controversial stance on birth control by stating he opposes women being allowed access to it. He has backed off from the stance but for strongly traditional Catholics and evangelicals that is a stance they can get behind.
Social conservatives since Iowa have been milling around looking for a candidate. Multiple forums have been held in different locations, visited by a number of the candidates, yet social conservative leaders remained divided. Santorum’s entrance onto the national scene with his close second place finish in Iowa showcased his candidacy to social conservatives. In Iowa, his positions appealed to pro-life voters as it may in South Carolina.
The Santorum camp’s success has largely hinged on blue-collar and social conservative support. In Iowa that was a recipe for success and in South Carolina that strategy could yield similar results. Current polling in South Carolina shows a close race with voters identifying as conservative and being concerned with social issues being split among multiple candidates.
The problem for the Santorum camp being able to unify social conservative support after this endorsement is that many social conservatives are also fiscal conservatives. This overlap means their votes could be based more on social issues or social issues. Santorum could appeal to these voters on social issues but if they view the economy as more important Santorum may not get their vote. Furthermore, the divided conservative vote means social conservative support is also likely to be split, regardless of the endorsement Saturday.
The endorsement of social conservative leaders shows Santorum’s support among this group is solid. But an endorsement from leaders who are dedicated to only one issue is something else entirely than social conservative voters who are worried about a plethora of issues. Santorum received the endorsement of social conservative leaders. Now the question is whether he will receive a significant majority of social conservative voters on January 21st.