How Rick Santorum Lost Ohio

His close-second finish is a moral victory for the upstart conservative--but it may also be his high-water mark.

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COLUMBUS, Ohio--While campaigning in Ohio prior to the primary election here, Rick Santorum referred to himself as the people's candidate. Mitt Romney was the establishment candidate. When the votes were finally counted, the establishment trumped the people by the slightest of margins.

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Romney's narrow victory in Ohio, where he took 38 percent of the vote to Santorum's 37 percent, gives the former Massachusetts governor the most valued prize out of 10 Super Tuesday contests. It was a must-win state for Romney's stutter-step presidential bid, giving him the majority of the Buckeye State's 66 Republican delegates. It may also add a bit of badly needed momentum that helps Romney get to the finish line and finally claim the nomination.

But Santorum can clearly claim a moral victory, or a "silver medal," as he told supporters the night of the election. The former Pennsylvania senator was considered a fire-and-brimstone fringe candidate just a couple months ago, and Romney outspent him in Ohio and other states by a margin of at least four to one. Yet Santorum has become a surprise spoiler who seems to be gaining strength the longer he campaigns, not losing air as Newt Gingrich appears to be doing and Herman Cain and Rick Perry did before they dropped out of the race. Santorum, for instance, also won Super Tuesday races in Tennessee, North Dakota and Oklahoma, which are minor notches politically, yet they still add to Santorum's credibility as a bona fide winner.

The tight Ohio race was an improvement on Santorum's showing in Michigan a week earlier, where he lost by three percentage points. As expected, Romney won the "establishment" counties near urban centers such as Cleveland and Cincinnati, while Santorum fared better in rural areas and among blue-collar voters. Santorum's marginal improvement over his performance in Michigan may have come from higher portions of certain voting blocs in Ohio that favor the devout Catholic from a blue-collar Pennsylvania mining town, such as voters describing themselves as "conservative" or "evangelical," plus those lacking a college degree.

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Santorum may also have benefited from Newt Gingrich's showing in Ohio. The former House speaker put most of his Super Tuesday effort into winning his home state of Georgia, not campaigning in Ohio, yet he still got 15 percent of the vote in the Buckeye State, more than twice his take in Michigan a week earlier. Gingrich's votes may have come more at Romney's expense than Santorum's, since many Republican voters consider Gingrich, like Romney, to be a centrist. That may have strengthened Santorum's showing among conservatives.

Still, Santorum also blew a sizeable lead in Ohio, where polls showed him ahead of Romney by more than 10 percentage points just a week before the election. Santorum also held a considerable lead in the Michigan polls before losing there, making Ohio the second big contest in which a last-minute Santorum fade has raised doubts about his staying power. Here's how Santorum fumbled the lead in Ohio, ceding key votes to Romney:

He remained too preachy. As Republicans know, Santorum's distinguishing features as a candidate are his strident views on social issues, such as his anti-abortion stance, his opposition to gay marriage, and his belief in religion as an important part of civic life. As Santorum has become a more mainstream candidate, he has tried to broaden his appeal by calling for smaller government, lower taxes, and more support for blue-collar workers, and by making his economic ideas a higher priority.

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In Ohio, it didn't quite work. Exit polls show that Santorum, for example, won 65 percent of the vote from people who consider abortion the most important issue—but they made up just 11 percent of primary voters. Those who said the economy was the top issue, by contrast, made up 54 percent of the voters—and they favored Romney over Santorum by eight percentage points.

"Rommey is the man with the answer on the economy," says Teresa Price of Zanesville, who attended a Romney rally there the night before the primary with her husband Dow--both of them wearing white ballcaps that read "Coal = Jobs." "The other Republicans got off-message," she says. "Social issues are not as important as economy."

He was disorganized. Santorum's campaign failed to complete the paperwork required to get him on the ballot in a number of districts, a sign of the shoestring nature of the operation early on, when the window to qualify in every district was still open. In some districts, by contrast, Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry were on the ballot, even though they've suspended their campaigns.

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Those oversights may have cost Santorum the state. They also gave ammunition to the Romney campaign, which cited the disorganization as evidence that Santorum didn't have the logistical wherewithal to go up against a powerful Obama campaign in the fall. And sure enough, exit polls showed that 51 percent of voters considered Romney to be the candidate most able to defeat Obama in the general election. Only 24 percent felt that way about Santorum.

He didn't spend enough. It was inevitable that the Romney campaign, which has been raising money for more than a year, would outspend all the other candidates in Ohio, as it has elsewhere But Santorum and his supporters might regret not spending a bit more during the final days to run ads touting their man, or attacking Romney. One key poll showed that nearly half of all likely voters hadn't yet decided whom to vote for in the final week, which meant they were open to persuasion. Romney's frequent ads, deriding Santorum as a flip-flopping Washington insider, may have wooed just enough undecided voters, while Santorum aired far fewer ads attacking Romney.

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He lost Catholics. One of the ironies of Santorum's appeal to conservatives is that he fails to grab a majority of voters who share his faith. In Michigan, Santorum got just 37 percent of the Catholic vote, while Romney nabbed 44 percent. Romney kept the same portion of Catholic voters in Ohio, but Santorum dropped to just 31 percent. Since Catholics accounted for one-third of the voters in Ohio, Santorum could have won the state if he had gotten 40 percent or so of the Catholic vote, instead of falling below one-third.

The question now is whether Santorum reached his high-water mark in Ohio, or whether he can expand his appeal even further among voters mostly concerned about jobs and the economy. The people's candidate still needs a few more people on his side, and the establishment candidate is going to keep fighting him over every single one.

Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success, to be published in May. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman

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