THE BLOG

Rick Santorum: A Presidential Candidate's Journey From Zero to Hero and Then Back to Zero

05/26/2015 04:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2016

Former Republican Senator Rick Santorum formally announced Wednesday that he's running for President in 2016. Santorum previously ran a long-shot campaign for President in 2012, during which he managed to turn meager poll numbers and fundraising into a surprise victory in that year's Iowa Caucuses. Santorum entered the race with little rationale for his candidacy. He'd been out of public office since losing his 2006 reelection bid by a very wide 17 point margin. His time in the Senate was largely defined by his unapologetic social conservatism.

Santorum's comments on same-sex relationships became particularly controversial during his tenure in the Senate. His comments drew so much ire from liberals, that LGBT activist Dan Savage started a media campaign to make Santorum's last name a graphic euphemism relating to gay sex. To this day, google searches for "Santorum" still yield results on page one for a rather unsightly image. To make matters worse for the former Senator, political comedians like Jon Stewart picked up the euphemism and spread it on air.

This successful campaign to literally sully Santorum's name was one of the reasons his 2012 victory in the first in the nation Iowa Caucus came as such a surprise. Few could have imagined a man who was the butt of so many jokes defeating frontrunner Mitt Romney, despite being outspent 10 to 1 by Romney's Super Pac.

For Santorum to shoot from his current position at the back of the 2016 pack of candidates to another surprise victory in Iowa would be politically unprecedented. Santorum's success in 2012 was largely attributed to the unpopularity of Mitt Romney.

Throughout the 2012 Republican primaries, candidates who were not seen as electable or well-funded as Mitt Romney would rise in polling as far-right, tea party voters searched for an alternative to what they perceived as an insufficiently conservative frontrunner. The last of these anti-Romney polling surges would occur for Santorum, just as the Iowa Caucuses were getting underway. Currently, multiple factors imply that Santorum cannot rely on such luck in 2016.

For starters, the 2016 Republican Field is much stronger than the 2012 field. Current Iowa frontrunner Scott Walker is considered much more conservative than Romney ever was. There are also at least three other candidates vying specifically for Santorum's base of socially conservative, evangelical Christians. Mike Huckabee (who won the Iowa Caucuses in 2008), Senator Ted Cruz and Neurosurgeon Ben Carson, are all going to invest considerable resources into winning over the voters that gave Santorum his surprise 2012 victory.

If Santorum is to succeed in Iowa again, he'll have to hope that some or all of these candidates have either dropped out or lost considerable resources by the time the Iowa Caucuses are held in January 2016. This scenario seems unlikely, as Cruz, Carson and Huckabee all currently poll considerably higher than Santorum both nationwide and in Iowa.

Just last week, Santorum was criticizing Fox News's criteria for who will and will not be at the first Republican Debate in August. Fox News says it will be inviting the top ten highest polling candidates to debate, with all others being left out. Santorum currently ranks exactly 10th in polling and risks slipping below that position in the coming weeks as more candidates join the race.

Santorum is also one of the weakest potential matchups for a general election against Hillary Clinton. His rhetoric on gay rights and abortion could very well embolden liberal Democrats to come out to the polls in 2016. This will keep establishment Republican leaders and donors from supporting his campaign, as they look to support a more palatable candidate.

It remains to be seen if Rick Santorum can make lightning strike twice. A repeat victory in Iowa would definitely cement him as a credible candidate through the early primary elections. At this point however, it would appear that Santorum's meteoric rise from political laughing stock to top tier Presidential hopeful, has led him right back where he started. Will he rise again? All signs point to no.