The Secret of Rick Santorum's Surprising Success


The explosive electoral phenomenon of former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination is, as usual, the object of fascination by those not a part of it. It's a shock-horror fascination, to be sure, but something to behold nonetheless. As usual, many pundits have allowed their awe to cloud their capacity for rational judgment, drawing inaccurate conclusions about the causes and implications of Santorum's popularity.

Finding out exactly why the former senator (forcibly retired with a nearly twenty point margin by his constituency ) is such a draw for so many, one must understand his fans. A look at the electoral map of any recent primary, from Michigan's to Mississippi's, reveals that Santorum's base of support lies in sparsely populated areas. So far, he has lost most of the urban and suburban precincts, and this trend seems unlikely to change.

Thus we arrive at the real question of Santorum's success, what is the common sociological thread running through the rural areas that works so well for him? An objective look at the residents of these areas spotlights their poverty and lack of formal education. Perversely, Santorum routinely sneers at the value of education; and just one day before the Illinois primary, announced that he did not care about America's unemployment rate. Despite these stunningly arrogant, if not ignorant, statements, legions of supporters continue to crawl out of the woodwork to lend their support. Don't they understand that he quite literally does not have their best interests at heart?

It is this contradiction that drives the pundits into flights of hyperbole and smugness. The careful observer, however, will note the all-important outlook from which his or her answer can be found. In pro-Santorum areas, fundamentalist Protestantism, and to some length Catholicism, reign predominant. Santorum has based his entire run around his hardline interpretations of Catholicism. His rhetoric revolves around the themes of banning pornography, but also ventures into the boldness of bridging the separation of church and state. In short, he strategically raises highly emotional issues for voters who rarely hear these, and they are now repaying him in full.

Of course, this is political insanity in its textbook form. Polls have shown, however, that Santorum voters simply do not care. They support him strongly, despite admitting he is not as likely as his leading opponent to defeat the incumbent. Electability is not too important to them. Why? Because they do not identify with the contemporary mainstream of American society. As most live in rural communities, they have the unique ability to be isolated from the melting pots of the suburbs and salad bowls of the cities. In desolate locales, the post-1960s cultural shift that has washed over urban and suburban America has not been accepted.

Indeed, many out in the country are still beholden to a pre-digital, pre-Internet mindset. As they watch the rest of society change, these folks become increasingly reactionary. This happens when a nation's culture evolves or devolves; some groups are always left so far back in the dust that they are almost forgotten about. In the ever curious case of modern America, Santorum's candidacy serves as their bullhorn. I do not disagree with many traditionalist criticisms of our current cultural climate, especially insofar as proper manners and acceptable dress codes are concerned. The problem with many extreme traditionalists is that they see no distinction between the personal and the professional. This explains their falling for Santorum's lines regarding the enshrinement of fundamentalist Christianity in public policy measures; in fact, in their communities such a thing is commonplace. The isolation they endure blocks off alternative opinions and diverse ideas. This also accounts for why the rest of America is so befuddled by their support for Santorum.

The United States is a nation divided between two distinct macro-cultures. The first can be seen 24/7 on most television channels, heard while walking through the downtown of any city of any size, and experienced in an afternoon at the art museum. The second is not readily apparent, but can nonetheless be found in the aisles of Walmart, the pews of most non-mainline churches, and at events ranging from monster truck rallies to tent revivals. Undoubtedly the best way to monitor the culture clash, however, is by marking up a state's map to divide the populous counties from those less so. This division will accurately depict the divide between the areas that Santorum won and those claimed by his competitors.

Well, there it is. Santorum's favorability with his masses should not be analyzed on the basis of current American cultural norms. He and his devotees are operating on a continuum of their own; one which resembles the turn of the twentieth century far more than it does the twenty-first. Only the passing of time can be expected to close a gap this wide.

Originally published in Blogcritics Magazine:

Joseph F. Cotto is a scholar and columnist from central Florida. Most often writing about political affairs, he is a member of the all-but-extinct Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party, taking conservative stances on fiscal and national security issues while being a staunch centrist on social matters. For several years, he was an accredited reporter for Wikinews, Wikipedia's news subsidiary. There, he covered major stories such as the 2008 presidential election and interviewed personalities ranging from former U.S. senators to filmmakers. He is currently at work on a book about American politics.


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