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UW Election Eye 2012

Campaign 2012 through the eyes of UW faculty and students

March 17, 2012 at 6:26 AM

If Lehigh and Norfolk State can do it in the NCAA tournament, can Rick Santorum upend the Republican presidential contest?

For sports fans, this time of the year is known as March Madness. That’s the popular name ascribed to the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, in which small schools, serious underdogs, sometimes defeat bigger, far wealthier, steeped-in-tradition programs.

March Madness is the official name of the NCAA basketball tournament (logo by NCAA).

It happened four times yesterday.

Two teams that are #15 seeds (among the lowest in the tournament), Norfolk State and Lehigh, upset #2 seeds and hoop icons Missouri and Duke, respectively. In the history of the NCAA men’s tourney, only four #15 seeds had beaten #2 seeds. It happened twice yesterday.

Further, a #13 seed, Ohio University, upset one of the legendary sports programs in the nation, University of Michigan.  And a #12 seed, University of South Florida, knocked off a #5, Temple.

It was quite a day. Personally, I’m a huge Michigan fan — but I found myself caught up in rooting for the underdog Ohio U. Watching David knock off Goliath is something special.

There are favorites and underdogs in politics, too. And right now, the underdog has got a shot in the Republican Party presidential primary. It’s a long, long, long shot — but it’s still a chance. And when there is a chance, sometimes things happen. Like in 2008.

I am reading The Mag1c Num8er: Ins1de Obama’5 Cha5e for the Pres1dent1al N0m1n4at10n, written by Jeff Berman, who headed up Barack Obama’s delegate-tracking operation in the epic struggle for the Democratic Party nomination against Hillary Clinton. I have read several books about Obama, Clinton, and the 2008 presidential contest, because I am fascinated with the ways in which underdogs defeat supposedly “inevitable” opponents — whether in sports or in politics.

And in the 2008 campaign, Obama was a decided underdog to Clinton.

Clinton had the loyalty of Democratic Party leadership earned during her husband’s time as Arkansas governor, head of the National Governors Association, and then President of the nation. She was the first female U.S. Senator in the state of New York and had worked tirelelessly in Congress. She had an international reputation on issues of importance for women and children. And she had pollsters and campaign strategists that knew how to navigate the road to the White House.

Obama had his strengths, too, of course. He was anti-war on the Iraq War and he appealed to younger voters. But he was a newcomer, only on the national scene since 2004, and his connections and reputation paled in comparison to Clinton.

In Berman’s book, he opens with a quote from Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, delivered in early 2007: “Nice times out of ten, Hillary Clinton beats Barack Obama for the presidential nomination. Our challenge is to find that one path to victory.”

For Obama, he had to win the first state, Iowa, then survive Clinton-friendly states New Hampshire and Nevada, win South Carolina, win several caucus states on Super Tuesday, and then capture a series of Obama-favorable states in February to gain an advantage. Everything had to line up perfectly for his side to make it happen. It did.

Now, because I am a sports, politics, and underdog junkie, Plouffe’s words remind me of a speech that USA men’s hockey coach Herb Brooks delivered to his team in 1980 at the Winter Olympics, prior to the semifinal matchup with the mighty Soviet Union. This speech is memorialized in the film “Miracle,” a not-great film that nonetheless holds a place in sports lore, along with movies such as “Bull Durham,” “Field of Dreams,” and “Hoosiers.”

Here’s the apex of Brooks’ speech:

Close your eyes, change a few words, have Obama deliver it rather than Brooks (played by Kurt Russell), and the echoes are the same. This is your moment. This is your time. Yes we can. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. USA, USA, Obama, Obama.

There aren’t a lot of moments when the underdog, the David, rises up to defeat the Goliath. When it happens, when Seabiscuit beats War Admiral, it is something one never forgets, whatever one’s rooting allegiances.

The odds are that 2012 is not one of those years in the Republican presidential nomination. Mitt Romney has struggled mightily, but he’s still the favorite to be the GOP nominee. He has way more money, far more support among national Republican leadership, and a much deeper and wider organization.

Santorum has two things on his side: the support of the party’s core voting bloc, white evangelicals, and the fact that Romney created a health care system in Massachusetts that the Obama administration closely followed in creating its health care program. Evangelicals have not warmed to Romney even after he’s been running for the White House, more or less, since 2007.  And now Romney’s health care plan is starting to loom large in the campaign.

First, some interviews and newspaper essays from 2009 and 2010 have emerged in which Romney seems to make the case that his program in Massachusetts should be the model adopted by the Obama administration. Such promotion by him runs counter to his claim for the past few years that he never saw his approach as a model for the federal government.

And the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear six hours of oral arguments March 26-28 — the most in 44 years — regarding the constitutionality of the Obama health care law, including on the individual mandate, the core component of Romney’s and Obama’s health care plans. This debate is certain to push health care back into the spotlight.

The Santorum campaign is all over these developments, and has ratcheted up the rhetoric against Romney. Two days ago Santorum said this about Romney: “On so many fronts, there could be no person in this country who we could nominate who would be any worse on taking on Barack Obama on the most important issue of the day, ‘Obamacare,’ than Governor Romney. It’s the equivalent of malpractice to nominate someone who gives away the most important issue in this race.”

If Santorum is going to pull an upset and shift the path of the Republican nomination, he needs to do it now. It’s win and advance time in the NCAA tourney; same for Santorum.

The Republican primary in Illinois on Tuesday is arguably his best shot. It’s a state where Santorum has a sizeable constituency, once one moves outside the Chicago area.  Many social conservatives live downstate Illinois. Yet the large numbers of Republicans in the suburbs of Chicago keep Romney as a favorite. So a Santorum win would be an upset.

Santorum won the Kansas caucuses handily last Saturday. On Tuesday he won, somewhat surprisingly, primaries in Mississippi and Alabama. He’s likely to do well in caucuses today in Missouri. He is favored in Louisiana next Saturday.

The Republicans are well along in their march to a presidential candidate, but if Santorum wins Tuesday in Illinois, the GOP will enter a new state of madness.

0 Comments | Topics: Alabama, Bill Clinton, Caucuses

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