Of all the states to hold primaries on Tuesday, everyone agrees that by far the most important is Ohio. It is the largest state voting, and it is essential for Republicans to carry in November.
But the reason Ohio is especially important this year is that Rick Santorum is in a dead heat with Mitt Romney in the Ohio polls. The reason is presumably Santorum’s appeal to conservative blue-collar voters. Thus far, Santorum has performed better in the industrial Midwest than in the service economy Sunbelt. Romney is stronger among wealthier, more educated and suburban Republicans, Santorum among the more religious, less educated, less affluent and rural. In Michigan, Santorum carried voters making less $100,000 per year and those who did not graduate from college, while those who make more than $100,000 and college graduates provided Romney with his narrow margin of victory.
Why is this? It’s not because Santorum’s proposals on taxes and spending are less skewed towards the wealthy than Romney’s. If anything, they are even more so.
The conventional explanation offered by the media is biographical. Consider this dispatch from the Washington Examiner in Arizona last month: “ ‘I’m not a manager, I’m not a visionary; I’m a guy from a steel town,’” Santorum said at the Maricopa County GOP Lincoln Day lunch, drawing a parallel with the former Massachusetts business executive. Santorum’s rise in the polls has come as GOP primary voters warmed to his working-class background.” Reporters have uncritically bought the idea that Santorum comes from humble roots and that gives him a personal connection with voters of modest means. It has become so widely accepted that it is treated as objective fact. Even the Associated Press wrote in a news article Saturday that “[Santorum] began talking more about his working-class background,” in Michigan.
This is baloney. Santorum is from less of a working-class background than Bill Clinton, Joe Biden or Barack Obama. As a blog post on The Democratic Strategist noted, “Rick Santorum is an MBA, fancy lawyer, politician and slimy lobbyist. His parents were a clinical psychologist and administrative nurse. He is no more authentically ‘blue collar’ than he is Chinese.”
White lab coats don’t have blue collars. Santorum went to Penn State as an undergraduate and for law school and received an MBA from the University of Pittsburgh. Graduates of top-tier flagship state schools and multiple graduate programs are not working-class people.
As recent Huffington Post and New Republic articles on demonstrate, Santorum was hardly a populist during his college years. Santorum, who sported a beard and smoked a pipe, was more of a typical frat boy. He was ambitious, conservative on economic issues and not terribly ideological. In fact, he has said that he was “basically pro-choice,” on abortion until he ran for Congress. Since leaving Congress, Santorum has become a wealthy lobbyist.
Santorum knows he cannot burnish his blue-collar credentials by talking about his life. So instead he constantly invokes his grandfather, an Italian immigrant who worked in coal mines. Grandpa Santorum appears in everything from Santorum speeches to e-mails to supporters. Consider how Santorum’s most recent e-mail blast began:
We just gave Mitt Romney the fight of his life in his home state and now we are in for a long, important battle to the Convention. But before I get to that, I just have to pause and tell you a story about my grandfather. He was an immigrant from Italy. He became a coal miner, and he worked hard every day. To think that his grandson could rise to the top tier of the most important Presidential election in American history is something that could only happen in America. I thought of my grandfather a lot during the early days of this campaign. I was spending long nights crisscrossing Iowa to talk with voters, driving in my own car while other candidates were taking private jets. It's hard to be an underdog.
Mitt Romney has tried the same gimmick of claiming credit for the fact that his grandparents were not wealthy, but it did not work. Somehow, Santorum has gotten away with this equally phony shtick. Consider this New York Times column by David Brooks:
The Republican Party is the party of the white working class. This group—whites with high school degrees and maybe some college—is still the largest block in the electorate…. The Republicans harvest their votes but have done a poor job responding to their needs. The leading lights of the party tend to be former College Republicans who have a more individualistic and even Randian worldview than most members of the working class. Most Republican presidential candidates, from George H.W. Bush to John McCain to Mitt Romney, emerge from an entirely different set of experience…. Enter Rick Santorum. Santorum is the grandson of a coal miner and the son of an Italian immigrant…. His worldview is not individualistic.
Actually, Santorum is a former College Republican: he was president of the Penn State chapter. When it comes to economics, Santorum’s views are relentlessly, heartlessly, individualistic. His communitarian impulses are restricted to imposing his views on sexuality on others.
But Santorum is a shrewd politician. His fraudulence as a working-class candidate, both biographically and substantively, hasn’t stopped him from making reactionary appeals to anti-elite resentment. Speaking to the Americans for Prosperity Presidential forum in Michigan a week ago, he attacked President Obama for proposing to make post-secondary education accessible to all Americans:
President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob. There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to [the] test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate them. Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.
Liberals sneered that this was a major gaffe for Santorum. Considering that Santorum has more advanced degrees than Obama, wouldn’t sending kids to college remake them in Santorum’s image as much as Obama’s? Substantively, Santorum’s smear was completely dishonest. Obama did not actually say everyone should go to a four-year liberal arts college. Rather, he wants to make technical schools and community college options available to people who will work in manual professions. Anyway, liberals reasoned, don’t even non-college graduates want their children to go to college? Isn’t opposing college like opposing apple pie?
If you watch the video of Santorum speaking, you’ll see the audience loved his riff. Kathleen Parker, a reasonable conservative at the Washington Post, asserted in a column criticizing Santorum’s comments that the audience did not actually share Santorum’s views. “Said audience did applaud, but this is because they don’t like Obama and would have cheered no matter what Santorum said about him,” wrote Parker. This is wishful thinking. I’ve seen a lot of Republican campaign speeches, and I’ve seen plenty of attacks on Obama receive less enthusiastic applause than that did.
There’s no doubt that Santorum is more adept at appealing to cultural and class resentments of working-class voters than Romney. But that doesn’t mean he is actually working class himself, and the media should not indulge this fantasy any more than they should have let George W. Bush pretend he was a brush-clearing cowboy.