The last shall be second: Will Santorum’s near-win in Iowa capture the interest of Catholic voters?

By Scott Alessi| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

After coming within an eyelash of winning the Iowa caucus last night, Rick Santorum is the new flavor of the month in the Republican Party, standing atop a platform firmly built on his own Catholic values.

Until recently, Santorum had been languishing at the bottom of the Republican primary polls, even promising to drop out of the race if he finished last in Iowa. But in recent weeks he heavily focused on winning over voters with a strategy of heavily campaigning on religious values. It worked for Mike Huckabee in 2008, and sure enough, it worked for Santorum in 2012.

Unlike Rick Perry, whose ad campaign aimed at religious values voters in Iowa severely backfired, Santorum slowly built momentum by saying all the things that these voters want to hear. He is pro-family. He strongly opposes abortion and stem cell research. He is for “traditional marriage” and against any attempts to allow same-sex couples to wed. And though he fails to fall in line with his own church on immigration, his views on the issue do strike a chord with GOP voters.

Though his last minute push was enough to come within eight votes of winning Iowa, Santorum is just the latest candidate to court Republican voters who care about these issues. During our recent U.S. Catholic survey on the presidency of Barack Obama (results of which will appear in our February issue), we asked readers the open ended question of who they’d like to see in the White House. Early on, many readers named Perry as their choice, but by the time we ended the survey, he was a forgotten candidate. Then we saw a surge in support for Herman Cain, which also quickly died out (along with Cain’s campaign). Santorum and Michelle Bachmann garnered support from a few readers along the way, and by the end of the survey, Newt Gingrich was suddenly appearing frequently as respondents’ presidential pick. So in short, Catholics have followed the same ebb and flow as the national Republican Party, unable to decide who they want to get behind.

A Gallup poll released yesterday shows this isn’t just true among our readers. Catholics, the poll shows, are remarkably close to the national averages in their choices among the Republican candidates. That means that unlike Mormons, who overwhelmingly support Mormon candidate Mitt Romney, Catholics aren’t getting behind any one candidate just because they are Catholic, or because of their religious beliefs (Santorum had 4 percent support among Catholics in the poll, compared to 3 percent among all GOP voters).

Santorum’s ascent to the top of the Republican pack is likely to be only temporary, and it remains to be seen whether his candidacy will get a shot in the arm from his strong Iowa showing. Among Catholic Republicans, he may get a second look after being considered little more than an afterthought, but they are likely to find the same things in him that they saw in other now-forgotten former frontrunners: A candidate who shares many of their personal values, but one who still doesn’t have everything they are looking for in a president.