Moral Conservatives Spark the Santorum Surge

Rick Santorum’s meteoric rise in the national polls following his surprise February 7th wins in Minnesota, Missouri and Missouri naturally begs the question, “Where did the Santorum surge come from?”        

My analysis of a nationally representative re-interview survey conducted by YouGov last week (respondents were first interviewed in January 2012) indicates that Santorum has his morally conservative brethren to thank for this front-runner status.  Santorum support, not surprisingly, increased rather dramatically among these panelists who were interviewed in both January and February (from 16 to 30 percent).   More importantly for our present purposes, the figure below shows that this enhanced over time support was most heavily concentrated among morally conservative Republicans.  Indeed, in January Santorum was the preferred choice of only about 20 percent of respondents who both strongly oppose gay marriage and think abortion should be illegal in all circumstances.  When these exact same individuals were re-interviewed last week, though, more than 50 percent of them now preferred the former Pennsylvania Senator.  Meanwhile, the display reveals only a slight uptick in his standing from January to February among more socially liberal and moderate Republican primary voters.  All told, then, the evidence strongly suggests that moral conservatives sparked the Santorum surge.    

That finding is highly consistent with the political activation account of presidential primaries put forth by renowned political scientist and Model Politics contributor, Larry Bartels.  Bartels concludes in his 1988 book, Presidential Primaries and the Dynamics of Public Choice that as voters acquire more information over the course of the primary season, “the public comes to increasingly evaluate candidates on their political merits, in accordance with longstanding political predispositions.”  It appears from the results above that this political activation process has once again taken place in the 2012 campaign.  That is, morally conservative voters seem to have flocked to Santorum as they acquired more information about his similarly strong opposition to gay rights and abortion—an activation process that was probably accelerated by the influx of recent attention to these and other “culture war” issues in the news media.    

 


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