The Other McCain

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Narrative Arc: Second-Guessing Palin, Santorum’s Story and Romney’s Doom

Posted on | April 17, 2012 | 71 Comments

Sarah Palin speaks in Manchester, N.H., Sept. 5, 2011

Yesterday, Ross Douthat engaged in a “counterfactual” what-if about the 2012 primary campaign: Could Sarah Palin have won?

Speculation unmoored from actual facts is one of those games intellectuals love to play. It’s light work for brainy people to imagine what might have been in an alternative universe. By contrast, the business of reporting — trying to get sources to return your calls, for example — is often enormously frustrating and the labor-to-output ratio sometimes makes you wonder if it’s worth it.

Why bother picking up the phone, when you can just speculate?

Successful politics involves telling stories — “narrative arc,” as the intellectuals say. In 2008, Sarah Palin had an awesome narrative arc: Feisty mother of five, husband an oil worker and snowmobile race champ, she fought the odds, beat the Republican establishment, became governor of Alaska, and was plucked from (relative) obscurity as the surprise choice for vice-presidential running mate.

Then her enemies went to work on her, and messed up that story, so she was scapegoated for John McCain’s 2008 loss and was made a symbol of everything anybody might hate about the Republican Party: A religious fanatic. A negligent mother. A tacky, selfish, scheming manipulator. An unsophisticated airhead lacking basic knowledge about major policy matters, who quit before her first term ended under a cloud of ethics allegations, and then cashed in with a book deal, a reality show, and a contract with Fox News.

A 2012 Palin for President campaign would have been about repudiating that negative version of her story, recapturing the narrative arc of the feisty Alaska hockey mom that had made her a heroine to so many people in 2008. And I would have loved to cover that campaign.

Peter Singleton and Michelle McCormick had me half-convinced at one point it might actually happen. (See, “Still Waiting for Sarah,” The American Spectator, Aug. 22.) I traveled to New Hampshire over Labor Day weekend to cover a Palin rally (“The People’s Palin,” The American Spectator, Sept. 6) where she drew a bigger crowd — and vastly more media coverage — than Mitt Romney had the day before. By the time she finally bowed out (“Sarah Says No,” The American Spectator, Oct. 6) Palin’s supporters had endured two months of agony, only to have their hearts broken, and were exposed to sadistic mockery from Erick Erickson merely for having hoped at all.

Perhaps you understand why I don’t particularly relish watching Ross Douthat, Allahpundit and Philip Klein (none of whom were ever prominently pro-Palin) do a leisurely re-hash of the hypothetical counterfactuals of a Palin campaign that didn’t happen.

You might want to re-read what I wrote about embittered cynicism as the bedrock belief system of the conservative grassroots.

What I liked about Rick Santorum’s campaign was that he had a great narrative arc: Grandson of an Italian immigrant coal miner, cast aside after his 2006 Senate defeat, given no chance at all by the media experts, tirelessly crisscrosses Iowa and — in a Christmas miracle! — suddenly surges ahead to win the crucial caucuses, becoming an overnight contender, emerging to mount a grassroots populist challenge to the Establishment frontrunner. As I wrote last week:

Santorum’s campaign raised just $2.2 million in all of 2011; by the time he emerged as one of the final four candidates for the GOP nomination, he had outlasted five candidates — Pawlenty, Cain, Bachmann, Huntsman, and Perry — all of whom once led him in the polls, and whose campaigns spent a combined total of more than $55 million.

One reason I preferred Santorum over Gingrich is that Newt’s life story lacked any appealing narrative arc. One reason Mitt Romney’s candidacy fills me with such forebodings of doom is that it will be so easy for Team Obama to construct a negative narrative about him.

Rather than wasting time on hindsight speculation, then, let’s consider this: Lisa Graas and some diehard Santorum supporters have mounted a “Vote for Rick Anyway” campaign. Even though he has officially suspended his campaign, Santorum will still be on the ballot in many states. By casting a vote for Santorum, conservatives can register their continued commitment to principle, and their continued resentment of the way the GOP Establishment lined up behind Romney.

It is possible — perhaps not likely, but nevertheless still possible — that the “Vote for Rick Anyway” movement could actually hand Romney an unexpected defeat in one or two primaries between now and June. A surprise win by a non-candidate over the presumptive nominee would at least make it clear to Team Mitt that they can’t just take conservatives for granted, which would seem to be their game plan for the general election campaign. (Supporting the Lilly Ledbetter Act? Really?)

L.A. blogger Joe Fein at Valley of the Shadow talks about narrative arc in terms of TV Tropes, and his understanding of how the “meta-story” works in politics is important to study for 2012 and beyond. Today’s headlines portend doom this fall:

CNN Poll: Gender gap and
likeability keep Obama over Romney


Romney gaining on Obama: Reuters/Ipsos poll

Poll: Romney rallies GOP, faces big
popularity deficit for general election

Washington Post

Others see reasons for hope in these early polls, but what I see is Romney struggling against the SCOAMF from the very outset of the general election campaign, before the Obama message machine — what Breitbart called the Democrat-Media Complex — has even really started telling its version of Mitt’s story: The insincere flip-flopping panderer, the greedy vulture capitalist with the weird “secretive” religion. By the time the machine is done working him over, Romney will have higher negatives than Martin Boorman.

Republicans are prepared to flush $800 million down the toilet in their doomed effort to elect Romney and, when we find ourselves sitting amid the ruins of another electoral cataclysm on the morning of Wednesday, Nov. 7, the GOP Establishment will still find some way to blame the defeat of their handpicked candidate on the conservatives who opposed his “inevitability” all along. I remind you once again of these numbers:


Mitt Romney ……… 4,595,908 (40.7%)
Rick Santorum …… 3,209,301 (28.3%)
Newt Gingrich ……. 2,284,557 (20.4%)
Ron Paul ……………. 1,191,026 (10.6%)


$66.8 million + super-PAC $40.5 million = $107.3 million

$19.2 million + super-PAC $16.6 million = $35.8 million

$13.0 million + super-PAC $7.5 million = $20.5 million


$107. 3 million (65.6% of total)
4.6 million votes (40.7% of total)
Price per vote = $23.33

$35.8 million (21.9% of total)
2.3 million votes (20.4% of total)
Price per vote = $15.57

$20.5 million (12.5% of total)
3.2 million votes (28.3% of total)
Price per vote = $6.41

Whatever else is said about 2012, no one can argue with this: Romney bought its primary votes at a premium, while the Santorum campaign was more than three times as efficient on a dollar-per-vote basis.

Now, anyone can feel free to believe that there is still some chance Mitt can beat Obama. We cannot preclude that possibility, no matter how remote the odds seem on a sober calculation. But if I’m right, and Romney is already doomed beyond all hope of redemption, then Santorum is already pre-positioned as the 2016 frontrunner.

Go ahead and scoff. I remember early December, when he was stuck in single digits, and “Santorurm Surge” was a sarcastic inside joke among the campaign press corps. Reporters showed up at that Dec. 26 duck hunt because Santorum was pretty much the only candidate campaigning the day after Christmas, and none of those reporters really believed — as I had detected two weeks earlier — that the surge was for real. Two days later, on Wednesday, Dec. 28, a CNN poll showed Santorum had moved up to a strong third place, and he was off to the races. He won the Iowa caucuses six days later without ever having led a single poll.

Nothing succeeds like success. Santorum’s 2012 campaign added a compelling new chapter to his story, and provides a solid base for 2016. One hesitates to provide unsolicited advice, but what if:

  • Santorum can identify among his 2012 contributors 5,000 hard-core supporters who will commit to giving $50 a month to a new political action committee? That’s $3 million a year.
  • Santorum campaigns actively for GOP candidates at every level, and making early contributions from his PAC to help “seed” contenders?
  • Santorum works hard on his messaging and image, staying firmly conservative while emphasizing the optimistic, cheerful side of his personality and his policy expertise?

One can imagine Santorum finding many occasions to visit Iowa regularly, speaking at county GOP dinners and so forth, and also working to build a strong network of support in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and Nevada. One can likewise imagine him making occasional (unpaid) TV appearances as a guest commentator. Conservatives who were slow to rally to Santorum in this cycle because of his long-shot status would have every reason to back him early in the 2016 cycle.

Hindsight spilled-milk “what if” speculation about 2012 is an interesting intellectual exercise, but speculation about a Santorum 2016 comeback might be quite realistic. However, this possibility is premised on catastrophe: A cataclyasmic wipeout for Romney on Nov. 6, with Obama re-elected to a second term of incompetent misrule.

If this is too much gloom for you, look on the bright side: The ancient Mayan calendar predicts the end of the world in December, which would at least spare us from another four years of Obama.

But the ancient Mayans could not be reached for comment.

Hit the freaking tip jar!

UPDATE: Thanks to Lisa Graas for this tip:

Santorum to His Supporters: ‘Stay Tuned’






71 Responses to “Narrative Arc: Second-Guessing Palin, Santorum’s Story and Romney’s Doom”

  1. Narrative Arc: Second-Guessing <b>Palin</b>, Santorum's Story and <b>…</b> « Feeds « Palin Republicans
    April 17th, 2012 @ 8:48 pm

    […] Posted on | April 17, 2012 | 46 Comments […]

  2. Quartermaster
    April 17th, 2012 @ 9:24 pm

    There is a very strong libertarian streak among conservatives. Santorum was very stupid to insult them. 

  3. Kat Wells Anderson
    April 17th, 2012 @ 10:11 pm

    Wow; real journalism is SO refreshing…

  4. Pathfinder's wife
    April 17th, 2012 @ 10:17 pm

    Well, technically if Santorum is still on the ballots, then I suppose there is a chance.  However, it is an infintessimaly slim one.

    Still, there is something for voting your conscience above all else.  If you want to vote for Rick, and he’s on the ballot, vote for him — in the end, is there anything to really lose from it?

  5. ThePaganTemple
    April 17th, 2012 @ 10:26 pm

     Come to think of it, he has been arguing with her a lot lately, almost as much as “gg”.

  6. ThePaganTemple
    April 17th, 2012 @ 10:28 pm

     It was arrogance. He got so high on himself he thought they’d put up with that kind of crap before they’d put up with Mitt as the nominee.

  7. ThePaganTemple
    April 17th, 2012 @ 11:00 pm

     Who knows, maybe Mitt’s slow the decline strategy might be a viable one if it paves the way for the next conservative President, say a Vice President West, to get elected and start the hard job of actually beginning to reverse the decline.

  8. alwaysfiredup
    April 18th, 2012 @ 12:43 am

    You mistake me: I advocate voting ABR.  Loudly, repeatedly, until I am blue in the face and there is no mathematical possibility of victory.  But for it to be a useful protest vote, it really needs to be for someone still in the race.

  9. Bob Belvedere
    April 18th, 2012 @ 8:44 am

    Ooo, you’re lucky the code duello doesn’t apply to women.

  10. Bob Belvedere
    April 18th, 2012 @ 8:45 am

    PW is spot-on, Zilla.  Vote for who you believe is the best of the bunch.

  11. John Higgins1990
    April 18th, 2012 @ 8:50 am

    There are so many  reasons why I will never, ever send a single dime to the RNC.  How they treated Palin is only one of those reasons.

  12. Bob Belvedere
    April 18th, 2012 @ 8:53 am

    Too bad.

  13. Tennwriter
    April 18th, 2012 @ 9:56 am

    Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

    Insulting libertarians is essential to moving the GOP forw ard.

    Now if libertarians were reasonable, if they were unprejudgiced, and if they were not bigoted, a strong case could be made for a Charm Offensive.

    But how is a black man supposed to charm the KKK?

    The Libertarians start this war, and then they whine like little girls (thanks Adjoran) when someone shoots back.

    In order to win the GOP, and take charge, the Conservatives not only have to defeat the RNC, and the Establishment, but the Libertarians as well.

    See how the Libertarians are running to Romney in the upthread.  In the end, they hate Conservatism more than they love liberty.

    I wish it were not so.  Santorum and other socons aka Real Full Spectrum Conservatives agree with Libertarians about 80-90% of the time.  They are logical allies, but the Libertarians choose not to be so.

    So…Door One.  Drive the divisive libertarians out, and gain votes (see prop 8).  Door Two. Teach the Libertarians about Reality with a stick. Gain votes.Either one works.

  14. Tennwriter
    April 18th, 2012 @ 9:57 am

    I have a very strong libertarian streak.

  15. Tennwriter
    April 18th, 2012 @ 10:00 am

    Because voting for the Governator in California requires a sequel.

  16. ThePaganTemple
    April 18th, 2012 @ 12:37 pm

    But for it to be a useful protest vote, it really needs to be for someone still in the race.

    That’s only true if you think Gingrich actually has a chance of winning the nomination. He does not. Romney is going to be the nominee.

    BUT, the main point of any protest vote is what is important, and can be effective at making Romney understand he has a lot of work to do to reach out to and reassure conservatives.

    Therefore, it doesn’t matter which ABR you vote for. It can be Santorum, Gingrich, or any conservative you are able to write-in, if you prefer.

    The point shouldn’t be to derail Romney’s nomination, because that’s just not going to happen. The point should be to make him realize if he wants to have a chance at winning, he’d better take notice that there are still a great many conservative Republicans who are by no means happy with him.

  17. ThePaganTemple
    April 18th, 2012 @ 12:42 pm

     “Wrong. Wrong. Wrong”

    Ask your darling little Ricky Poo how that stick worked out for him. Seems the evil “Libertarians” might have taken it away from him and crammed it up his self-righteous ass.

  18. CPAguy
    April 18th, 2012 @ 1:36 pm

    Arnold tried. But if a movie mega star can’t convince California to get its house in order….I guess they are screwed…probably beyond reclamation.

  19. alwaysfiredup
    April 18th, 2012 @ 3:31 pm

    To Pagan:

    Romney would pay even better attention if he was in danger of losing delegates.  It has always been the case that if Gingrich and Santorum combined delegate totals, they would be competitive with Romney’s delegate totals.  This is still true.  Santorum had enough delegates that they could swing the election if given to Newt or Paul. Don’t give up.

  20. ThePaganTemple
    April 18th, 2012 @ 6:06 pm


    I’m not sure about this, but I think all either one can do is release their delegates, I don’t think those delegates would then be required to vote for who the candidate to whom they were formerly bound wanted them to vote for. They could certainly make the case, but it would be up to the delegates.

    I haven’t given up. My goal is to defeat Obama, and if that has to be through Mitt, I’ve made my peace with that prospect. He has more than ample good qualities, just like he (and every other candidate) has drawbacks.   

  21. Our ‘Vote for Rick Santorum Anyway’ Campaign And What it Means for Mitt Romney
    April 19th, 2012 @ 8:07 pm

    […] Stacy McCain writes: Rather than wasting time on hindsight speculation, then, let’s consider this: Lisa Graas and some diehard Santorum supporters have mounted a “Vote for Rick Anyway” campaign. Even though he has officially suspended his campaign, Santorum will still be on the ballot in many states. By casting a vote for Santorum, conservatives can register their continued commitment to principle, and their continued resentment of the way the GOP Establishment lined up behind Romney. […]