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Lessons from Santorum: You Don't Have to Win to Set the Agenda

Santorum has achieved the best-case scenario of a longshot candidate: making a mark on the national conversation.


When I was 17 years old, my father ran for governor of New York on the Green Party ticket. From May to November 2002, he drove around the state in the family's Volvo two or three times a week, racking up about 10,000 miles. The campaign bill was around $60,000, some of which our family footed. Winning was never the point: My dad earned 41,000 votes total.

I was horrified about spending the money, and perplexed about my mother's tolerance of a semi-absentee partner. It seemed like such a waste. "Why are you doing this, Dad?" I asked him. His answer was simple: "I want to influence the conversation." I was skeptical, until the day after my high school graduation when he handed me a lengthy New York Times profile of him and his bid for governor, one that quoted him on the need for environmental protections, campaign finance reform, and state-subsidized health insurance—positions that were absent from the more mainstream candidates' platforms. "This is why I'm running," he told me. "When you run for office, you get publicity for your ideas." Despite the fact that my middle-class parents had to put a chunk of the campaign expenses on credit cards and were still paying them off in 2006, my father doesn't regret running. Those few thousand people who listened to him, and ended up voting for him, made it worth it.


Rick Santorum's long, surprisingly successful primary presidential campaign came to an end Tuesday, but he influenced the conversation on a much large scale than my dad ever did. He didn't just score one New York Times profile; he got countless mentions and quotes in every major news outlet in the country. He didn't just get a few thousand votes; he got 3 million of them. By talking about birth control and gay marriage and abortion and the dangers of college on national television over and over again, he played a huge role in setting the agenda for the 2012 presidential race—and the agenda of the GOP primary's victor, Mitt Romney.

I've written many times about how I profoundly disagree with Rick Santorum—it would have been a sad day for me if he were to be elected president. But I truly believe he ran for office for the right reasons: He has steadfast principles, for which, by his own admission, he wanted airtime. He emerged at a political moment when protestors on both sides were revolting against a painful financial crisis, but with the help of socially conservative legislators and talk show hosts across the country, he shifted our focus elsewhere. Meanwhile, Romney took a cue from Santorum's headlines and stump speeches, trying to keep up by dissing Planned Parenthood and advertising his "severe" conservatism.

Santorum probably had no idea how much success he'd have in the GOP primary. Back in April 2011, he emerged as a low-profile, grassroots candidate who bothered to visit the tiny towns his fellow candidates flew over. In terms of resources, he was dwarfed by Romney and edged out by Newt Gingrich. The initial scope of his campaign and his earlier, more extreme comments reveal his true goal of steering attention toward issues he cares about rather than winning. Ron Paul and Ralph Nader have admitted to doing the same. Santorum has achieved the best-case scenario of a longshot candidate: making a mark on the national conversation that will far outlive his candidacy.

Santorum's success serves as a useful reminder as we move into the general election, which features two professional, malleable politicians duking it out for a spot in the White House. Even if the winner will be the one to score the presidency, it's still possible to move the goalposts.

Photo by (cc) Flickr user Gage Skidmore.

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