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Santorum and Pataki Jump In

05/27/2015 08:07 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2016

For those of you keeping score at home, the list of official Republican candidates for president is growing by two names this week: Rick Santorum and George Pataki. This brings the official total to eight, as these two join those who have already declared: Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. Santorum is announcing today and Pataki has scheduled his big announcement for tomorrow.

As with all the other candidates who have officially thrown their hats in the ring, today we will take a serious look at Santorum and Pataki, and attempt to predict what their chances for victory could be. [A side note: tune in to this column tomorrow when we'll be taking a look at Martin O'Malley over on the Democratic side, who is expected to make his own formal announcement over the upcoming weekend. Also, in the Republican on-deck circle are Lindsey Graham (scheduled announcement June 1) and Rick Perry (scheduled for June 4), but we'll get to them next week.]

 

Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum's biggest hope is, obviously, that the Republican Party will revert to the norm of nominating the previous second-place winner. While this isn't as much of an actual tradition in the party as some believe, there are numerous examples of past runners-up being given the nod (Bob Dole, Mitt Romney and John McCain all immediately spring to mind). Since Santorum placed second in 2012, he likely sees himself as having the best chance to win the nomination this time around.

It tends to be forgotten, but Santorum's showing in 2012 was actually pretty impressive. He was the last "non-Romney" candidate standing, and he won 11 state primaries before he conceded. The only other Republican candidate (other than Romney) to win any states outright was Newt Gingrich, who picked up only two southern states, so winning 11 is nothing to scoff at.

The last time around, however, Santorum's surge happened a bit too late for him to truly gain the momentum he needed to beat Romney. Santorum was the final candidate in the "non-Romney" slot, after the collapse of the candidacies of Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich. If Santorum had peaked a little earlier in the primary calendar, he might have been able to capitalize on it better, to put this another way. Part of his problem was beyond his control, since while he actually won the Iowa caucuses, the voting was so close that it was initially announced that Romney had won, and the true results weren't known until weeks later. If Santorum had been announced the winner on the night of the Iowa caucuses, he may well have been able to translate that into a lot more momentum in the following weeks.

Santorum, like some of the other non-Romney candidates, had one big billionaire in his corner, which allowed him to stay in the race much longer than normally would have been possible. His patron (Foster Friess) seems to be on board with Santorum for his 2016 run as well, meaning his candidacy likely won't face a premature end due to lack of funding.

While there is one obvious similarity between 2016 and 2012 -- one dominant candidate in the race, with everyone else struggling to be the choice of primary voters disaffected with the frontrunner -- it's not a clear parallel, at least when predicting Santorum's chances. The last time around (for the "non-frontrunner" position), Santorum faced three longshot candidates and only one who was seen as a possibly viable Republican nominee (Rick Perry, before he had his "oops" moment). Bachmann, Cain and Gingrich were all mostly seen as vanity candidates to some degree or another.

This time around, though, Santorum will be facing a passel of governors and senators (most of whom have more recent political experience than Santorum) and only a few vanity candidates (Fiorina and Carson). The field is also a lot bigger than it was in 2016, and it's still growing. Santorum will also face another GOP candidate who could make the claim of being "next in line" for the nomination, due to Mike Huckabee's finish in the 2008 race. So all around, Santorum will be facing a tougher field.

Santorum's biggest problem will not be unique, since it is a problem facing many of the Republican contenders. Each candidate (other than the few at the front of the pack) will be desperately struggling to "make a name" for himself or herself in a very crowded field. Santorum previously did so by staking his candidacy on the religious right and the social wedge issues of the day. This time around, however, he'll face direct competition for those slices of the Republican electorate. To one extent or another, he'll be fighting with Huckabee, Carson, Perry and Bobby Jindal for the evangelical vote. With the religious right's vote thus split, Santorum may find it harder to chalk up any outright victories in the primaries, as he managed to do in 2012.

Santorum seems to realize this, and is charting a new tack, trying to position himself as the candidate of the blue-collar worker. Even if he succeeds in this rebranding effort, though, he will again have some competition. Many Republican candidates will be making a play for the blue-collar vote, among them Rubio, Paul, Huckabee, Scott Walker and Chris Christie. As I said, the big challenge for most Republicans this time around is going to be finding some way of separating themselves from the huge pack of other possible candidates.

Of course, this doesn't rule out Rick Santorum, especially this early in the contest. He'll be trying to repeat his performance in 2012 and do it better and faster, so he'll have a shot at dethroning Jeb Bush and any other frontrunners. If the Supreme Court rules that gay marriage will become the law of the land in all 50 states next month, then this will indeed become a very potent issue for many Republican voters. Rick Santorum has been out in front of this particular social issue for many years now, so he could use it to fire up the voters perhaps better than the other candidates.

Santorum has a very narrow path to victory, when it comes to the Republican nomination. But then so do most of the other candidates, so it's not outside the bounds of possibility. Santorum will have the money to go the distance in the primary election calendar, which is something not all of them can now state. However, if Santorum does somehow emerge as the Republican Party's standard-bearer, he's going to have a much bigger problem in the general election than a more-moderate candidate (especially on social issues) would have. However, if his candidacy is based on a platform of helping the blue-collar worker, it would make for an interesting contest in the general election, since the Democrats are signaling they'll be running their own populist campaign.

 

George Pataki

The second Republican candidate to announce this week may be met with a rousing chorus of: "George who?" (since he is nowhere nearly as well-known on the national stage as many of the other candidates).

For those unfamiliar with Pataki, he was a three-term governor of New York, winning office in 1994 and serving until 2006. There's a long history of New York governors making a bid for the White House, and in a year where the list of Republican candidates is going to be quite long indeed, it's easy to see Pataki's motivation -- he looked into a mirror and asked: "Why not me?" However, while New York governors running for president is indeed somewhat of a historical tradition, it hasn't led to success since Franklin Delano Roosevelt managed to make the leap.

Pataki, while relatively unknown now, might be one of the more interesting Republican candidates in 2016. He is a true moderate, which makes perfect sense when you consider he won three terms as governor of a very blue state (only the third Republican to do so since the 1920s). He may be the only Republican challenging his party's frontrunners from the left, to put this another way. Jeb Bush is trying to portray himself as a moderate, but Pataki's past positions go much further in this direction than Bush ever did. Whether this will be an asset or not when facing Republican voters in the primaries remains to be seen, however.

A quick review of his political record shows Pataki fits almost perfectly into what used to be known as the "Rockefeller Republican" mold. Nelson Rockefeller, it's worth pointing out, was one of those two previous Republican governors of New York (Thomas Dewey was the other) from the past 90 years. Both Rockefeller and Dewey made their own unsuccessful runs for president, and Rockefeller did go on to become vice president (albeit not through an election, but through Gerald Ford naming him, after Nixon resigned). "Rockefeller Republican," though, is just another way of saying "fiscally conservative, socially liberal."

While Pataki did push through plenty of tax cuts while he was governor (and also revived the death penalty in New York), his other political positions are, to be polite, not exactly mainstream Republican positions these days. Pataki is pro-choice, just to begin with. He also strongly supports the environment and believes something needs to be done about global warming (Pataki has always been a big fan of Teddy Roosevelt's conservation leadership, so these positions make sense). But as governor he also pushed through gay rights legislation and a strict gun control law, which puts him far outside most Republicans' thinking today.

Is the Republican Party ready for a true Rockefeller Republican candidate? Well, probably not. Pataki will (no doubt) argue that he'd be a great choice because he had to govern a very blue state, but at least two others can make the exact same claim: Christie and Walker. Both Christie and Walker can make this case while pointing out that they haven't strayed from Republican orthodoxy as much as Pataki has, which might be more palatable to those Republican primary voters who might be looking for some moderation in their candidate of choice.

Pataki's biggest argument might be that he could win New York state's large pot of Electoral College voters, which would give him a much better chance of winning the general election than any other Republican. This is a powerful argument, but it remains to be seen how valid a claim this actually would be. There is no guarantee that Pataki can win New York, after all, which has voted a Democrat into the governor's chair ever since Pataki left. Even if this claim might be a valid one in a normal election cycle, Pataki faces a huge problem this year in making the "favorite son" argument, and that is that there will likely be a "favorite daughter" from New York also on the general election ticket. While Hillary Clinton is not a native New Yorker, she did represent the state in the Senate for some of the same years Pataki was in the governor's office. So while this might have been a potent argument for Pataki to make if, say, Martin O'Malley was the Democratic frontrunner this year, with Clinton in the race it will probably fall flat.

It's very hard to see Pataki actually claiming the Republican nomination. His liberal social positions are not going to be welcomed by the other Republican candidates (or the primary voters), meaning he will have a limited effect even pulling the frontrunners to the middle (it's much more likely they're all going to be stampeding to the right). About the most charitable thing to be said about Pataki's chances for success is that he may have to walk the same path Jon Huntsman did in 2012. By this, I mean he might become the darling of the liberal media (with endless stories along the lines of: "Wouldn't it be great if the Republicans nominated a reasonable moderate like Pataki?") as well as whatever actual Rockefeller Republican voters still exist within the party's ranks -- but he will wind up with the same dismal share of the primary votes as Huntsman did. Personally, I think it would be interesting to see Pataki take on the hard-right Republican candidates in a debate, but I doubt Pataki will even make the cut to get onto any debate's stage. Pataki isn't exactly what I'd call a vanity candidate, but his run for the White House is likely to wind up with just as small a share of the vote as a vanity candidate would likely get.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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