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April 11, 2012 12:16 PM Santorum Out

By Jonathan Bernstein

I have a piece over at Plum Line looking forward towards the general election, but here’s a couple of quick notes about Rick Santorum, as he drops out and somewhat-more-formally clinches the nomination for Mitt Romney.

Yes, Santorum was the last one standing, at least if you don’t count Ron Paul, and if you understand that Newt dropped out a while ago but chose not to actually admit that he was dropping out. Santorum certainly finished second in delegates and votes. Nevertheless, I doubt that we can say he had the best shot at the nomination other than Romney. That honor, the real runner-up in this cycle, probably goes to Rick Perry, and perhaps even to Tim Pawlenty. Santorum, my guess is, pending further information, came in a solid fourth. Hey, it’s something!

How close did he come to winning the nomination? I think there are two realistic possibilities.

One is that he was alive until South Carolina. Had Santorum, and not Gingrich, “won” the debates that week, then he might well have won that state, and perhaps at that point movement conservatives would have jumped on board. Santorum, under that scenario, has the resources to run a solid national campaign: he sweeps the south, wins at least Ohio and Wisconsin and perhaps Illinois as well, and has a very solid chance to defeat Romney and win it all. Add in to that what you wish — while I don’t think an earlier or more impressive decision in Iowa would have made much of a difference, others no doubt disagree; perhaps, too, Santorum could have made slightly different choices along the way.

The other possibility, however, is that those conservatives who did not embrace Santorum after Iowa (or after Colorado/ Minnesota) were really with Romney all along, or at least preferred Romney to Santorum all along. If that’s the case, then Santorum really never had any more of a chance than Newt, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, or Ron Paul would have had if one of them had won in Iowa — and the nomination was really locked up not in South Carolina, but the moment that Rick Perry couldn’t remember that third department he wanted to eliminate.

We really don’t know the answer. Can we find out? Perhaps. Interviews with key party actors might shed some light on it. Combing through Mark Blumenthal’s “Outsiders” polling might shed some light, too. On the other hand, it may depend on choices that were never actively made, and therefore would be difficult,  perhaps impossible, to reconstruct.

So, congratulations to Rick Santorum on a race well run, and to Mitt Romney for a truly impressive job of winning a nomination from a party that, all in all, wasn’t particularly interested in giving it to him. And now we get eight months of this…oh well, I’m sure some of it will be fun.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.