Sept. 07– WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney and John McCain did it. So did Bob Dole, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Over the past 30 years, nearly every runner-up in a Republican presidential primary season has later gone on to win the party’s nomination. Pat Buchanan, who defected from the party, was the one exception since 1976.
And then there’s Mr. Santorum, who won 10 primaries and caucuses, came in second in 13 more and wound up with 20 percent of the popular vote and a second-place finish behind Mr. Romney in 2012.
Now Mr. Santorum is barely registering a blip in major polls, rendering him ineligible for the kind of prime-time debates that helped him grow a following last time.
One factor in his low performance is the diversity and scope of this cycle’s Republican field.
“Santorum has a lot of qualities that Republican voters like, but there’s not really a niche that he fills that isn’t already filled better by someone else,” said Chris Ellis, associate professor of political science at Bucknell University in central Pennsylvania. He cited as examples former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, real estate investorDonald Trump and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
“If you want a social conservative, you have Huckabee and Carson. If you want Tea Party, you have Cruz. If you want anti-establishment, you have Trump. If you want a strong conservative who’s won in swing states, you have Walker,” Mr. Ellis said. “This wasn’t the case in 2012, when Santorum had a much easier time breaking through.”
Even in that cycle, it took a while for his candidacy to catch on.
In August 2011, Mr. Santorum lamented to the Des Moines Register’s editorial board: “You just sort of wonder why is the national media not talking about me when they’re talking about people like Jon Huntsman who are way below me in the national polls, yet he gets press every single day? Nobody seems to want to pay any attention to me.”
After an October 2011 debate at Dartmouth College, Mr. Santorum stood alone in a corner of the spin room, ignored by reporters who swarmed around Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann.
That would change by the Iowa caucuses the following January, when Mr. Santorum pulled out a narrow win, beating Mr. Romney, the eventual nominee, by just a handful of votes.
Mr. Santorum’s campaign spokesman, Matt Beynon, can point to the precise day his candidacy took a turn: Dec. 14, 2011.
Mr. Santorum was rushing between campaign stops that day and didn’t leave himself enough time to change clothes before he and three other candidates spoke in Des Moines at the premiere of an anti-abortion documentary, “The Gift of Life.” Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich wore suits and Ms. Bachmann wore a dress, but Mr. Santorum showed up in the jeans and sweater vest he had worn during a day of retail politicking. It may have been the best mistake of his campaign.
Voters saw him as relatable, and social media lit up with photos, parodies and tweets referencing sweater vests. A “Fear Rick’s Vest” Facebook page emerged, and Mr. Santorum’s sartorial style became fodder for late-night television hosts and a costume staple forAndy Samberg, who played the candidate in skits on “Saturday Night Live.”
Suddenly, everyone was talking about Mr. Santorum.
“It was one of those things. Everyone liked him,” Mr. Beynon said. “They could see Rick Santorum as somebody who understands what they’re going through, somebody who relates to them and who has a record of accomplishments.”
By January, he was polling in the teens and it only went up from there as the Romney machine was focused on beating back Mr. Gingrich. As Mr. Santorum’s poll numbers rose, so did his campaign contributions, enabling him to run more ads in Iowa, highlighting his social conservatism. Once he squeaked out a win in Iowa, voters who had written him off began to see him as a viable candidate,Mr. Beynon said.
“It was the perfect storm of conditions that enabled him to have a really impressive result and become the runner-up for the Republican nomination,” said Philip J. Harold, associate dean of education and social sciences at Robert Morris University.
“It was a very odd set of circumstances where you had the party establishment backing a candidate [ Mr. Romney] that the base voters of the party were not interested in,” Mr. Harold said. “They were embracing any alternative, and Santorum caught fire at the right time.”
He’s trying to replicate that now. With almost four months to go before the Iowa caucuses, Mr. Santorum already has visited all 99 counties.
“That’s how you win Iowa. That’s what we did last time, and that’s what we’re doing this time,” Mr. Beynon said.
But 2016 isn’t 2012. The Republican field is both larger and stronger.
“It’s undeniable that there are a lot of very good candidates,” Mr. Beynon said, explaining why Mr. Santorum is polling between 1 and 2 percent.
“There are 17 candidates in the field and voters aren’t ready to commit yet,” he said. “The folks we’re seeing say, ‘We like you. You’re on our list of two or three folks we’re looking at.’ ”
Mr. Beynon said Republicans’ history of nominating previous runners-up bodes well for Mr. Santorum.
Political scientists aren’t so sure.
“Santorum was more of a technical runner-up than a strong candidate. He was briefly popular and did not demonstrate much capacity for organization and fundraising. Moreover, he did not hold elective office recently nor has he done anything notable in national politics since the 2012 run,” said Jeffrey A. Bosworth, chairman of the department of history, philosophy and political science at Pennsylvania’sMansfield University. “Santorum did not position himself well to make an additional run at the Republican nomination in 2016.”
David O’Connell, assistant professor of political science at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., agreed.
“Santorum came in second, but only because someone had to. He wasn’t a true threat to win the nomination in 2012, and that means he’s even less of a threat to win the nomination today,” he said.
Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.
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