Is Rick Santorum as electable — or, perhaps, almost as electable — as Mitt Romney? He’s certainly a different kind of potential nominee. Santorum would do worse than Romney in the upscale suburbs. But he might do better among downscale, blue-collar white voters.
Nate Silver notes that the electoral map, where blue-collar whites are disproportionately concentrated in swing states, makes Santorum’s brand relatively more valuable. I’ve argued that the disproportionate visibility of the upscale vote is making people dismiss Santorum’s appeal — reporters, politicos, and other elites tend to be surrounded by the kinds of people who like Romney and are repulsed by Santorum, causing them to overrate Romney’s general election appeal vis-à-vis his opponent.
There is a strong contrary case, though. In a nutshell, it’s that being loathed by disproportionately influential people is a big problem. Reihan Salam, a writer for National Review, makes a really sharp point, in an interview with Dave Weigel:
Santorum, in particular, is a candidate who, leaving aside the question of his substantive virtues or drawbacks, is a lightning rod for Postmoderns, media professionals, and many other influential people who will sway the way others vote.
And of course this is a problem for Santorum not just as a nominee but in getting the nomination in the first place. To win you need money, and the big money donors in the Republican Party are motivated by economics, not social issues. Case in point: billionaire Sheldon Adelson is now pumping money into Newt Gingrich’s dead-in-the-water campaign as a favor to Mitt Romney, because Adelson is horrified by Santorum’s positions on social issues and he wants to prop up Gingrich, who can split the conservative vote and whose continued viability now aids Romney.
Republican money men have always tolerated social conservatism as a part of building the party coalition and attracting votes. But the understanding has always been that the social issues must be subordinate: They don’t want a president who cares about those issues as much as he cares about the financial stuff. Santorum’s social issue platform is not meaningfully more conservative than Gingrich’s, or even Romney's, but Republican elites perceive that he actually cares about this stuff, and it scares them.