Richard Albert, WBUR.org
Barely 24 hours after Americans reelected Barack Obama to the presidency, Rick Santorum sent a mass email to thousands of conservative activists.
Santorum, the former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania and the runner-up to Mitt Romney in this year’s Republican presidential nomination, was writing ostensibly to urge unity between Republicans and Democrats in the face of the looming fiscal challenges. But the real purpose of Santorum’s email was to signal that he’s gearing up for another run for the White House in 2016.
“As a result of this election,” Santorum wrote, “we now need to engage with even more energy and commitment not just in politics, but in our daily lives, to ensure that the values upon which our country has prospered will continue.” And here is the kicker: “Karen and I look forward to working side by side with you to make that happen.”
It is an open secret that Santorum intends to run once again for the GOP presidential nomination. Why? Because history tells him he should.
The history of the modern Republican Party suggests that the 2016 presidential nominee will be someone who has previously lost the nomination. Since 1980, five out of the six GOP presidential nominees had been runners-up at least once before: Ronald Reagan won the nomination in 1980 but had lost in 1976; George H.W. Bush won in 1988 but had lost in 1980; Bob Dole won in 1996 but had lost in 1976 and 1988; John McCain won in 2008 but had lost in 2000; and most recently Mitt Romney won in 2012 but had lost in 2008. The only exception is George W. Bush, who won the GOP nomination on his first try in 2000.
No wonder Santorum is optimistic about his chances for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. But at this early stage, the only certainty is that Santorum will have a lot of company in the race for the nomination.
The next time around the Republican Party has at least five strategies to select its 2016 presidential nominee and Santorum may not be the best fit for any of them.
First, The Republicans could opt to select a candidate of conservative purity, someone whose conservative bona fides are known and reliable. This category includes former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, South Dakota Senator John Thune, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker or the most recent GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan.
Second, Republicans could choose a moderate, a candidate who can appeal to the center and battle the Democratic Party for moderate swing state voters. In this category, the early favorites are New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, former Utah Governor John Huntsman, and former New York Governor George Pataki.
Third, the Republican Party could find a candidate who is neither ideological nor moderate but rather a pragmatic problem solver. Some prospective candidates in this category are New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, and former Tennessee Senator Bill Frist.
Fourth, the Republican Party could quite simply pick a big-name star who is already widely known, such as former Governors Jeb Bush or Sarah Palin.
But my guess is that the Republican Party will opt for someone in the fifth category: a youthful, energetic, dyed-in-the-wool conservative whose face represents the nation’s changing demographics. On this list are South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval and New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez.
Where does this leave Rick Santorum? He falls in the first category of ideological candidates. Opposed to abortion and marriage equality, he is a father of seven who sees himself as an uncompromising champion of traditional conservative values. But why not get double the value by picking someone who gives you all that Santorum gives you plus the great visual of a non-white GOP standard bearer?
The second strike against Santorum may be the narrowness of his support base in the 2012 GOP nomination race. While much of his committed voting bloc will stand by his side in 2016, it may not be large enough to put him over the top.
Still, it remains possible that Rick Santorum will win the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. History tells us he has a great shot. But he will need more than an interesting historical trend to win.