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When Do Political Rules No Longer Apply?

If I told you that the Oakland A’s or the Pittsburgh Pirates would be in the Major League Baseball playoffs this year instead of the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, Texas Rangers or Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, you’d probably have me institutionalized.

At the very least, you would dismiss me as a crank who knows nothing about baseball and probably thinks Yu Darvish is some kind of Middle Eastern street food. (He is, in fact, a Japanese pitcher whose father is Iranian and who was recently signed by the Texas Rangers.)

But this year’s political version of the Oakland A’s, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), looks awfully formidable now. In fact, he looks like a team that is competing for the playoffs, maybe even the league championship.

If Santorum were a baseball team, he’d be a small market (undoubtedly Pittsburgh) team with weak pitching, no closer, a shortstop with no range and a first baseman with the nickname of “Doctor Strangeglove” (the nickname of former Pirates first baseman Dick Stuart).

In fact, Santorum the baseball team could never have gotten as far as Santorum the politician.

He wouldn’t be a factor because the rules of baseball still apply. Winning teams have a strong starting rotation, are strong up the middle (pitcher, catcher, centerfield, second base and shortstop), have an unassailable closer and play solid defense. And winning teams haves creative general managers who are given enough resources to put together strong teams.

Traditionally, there are “rules” that apply in politics as well. But this year, things seem different. They don’t seem to apply, which is a problem for those of us who look at the past to understand the present and to project future outcomes.

For one, the presidential candidate who wins the Republican straw poll in Ames in August of the year before the election is not supposed to finish last in the Iowa caucuses.

Strength at the straw poll presumably reflects organizational muscle and appeal with the kind of dedicated Republicans — and critically important evangelical Christians — who will turn out when the caucuses roll around five or six months later.

Yet Iowa native Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) won the straw poll and finished sixth — behind Santorum, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Rep. Ron Paul (Texas), ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and even Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the caucuses in January. She did beat former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who didn’t compete in the caucuses, and businessman Herman Cain, who had ended his bid in December.

Cain isn’t supposed to happen either.  Voters usually want their candidates to have some experience in elective office and to be running some sort of real campaign before they say that they will support him or her. And yet Cain’s electoral experience consisted of losing a Senate primary bid in Georgia in 2004, and his campaign was essentially nonexistent when he catapulted to the front of the GOP pack in polling in October 2011.

Gingrich isn’t supposed to happen either. Two adulterous relationships. Three wives. Freddie Mac. Tiffany’s revolving credit card account. Widely disliked by the former Members of Congress who worked most closely with him. And he leads the GOP race at one point and wins the South Carolina primary on the strength of support from highly religious voters?

And it isn’t only the rules that have changed. The political landscape is different, too, undoubtedly undermining the old rules of the political game.

Super PACs now rival the parties’ campaign committees in electoral effect, and party leaders, who have been overshadowed by talk-show hosts, social media gurus and tea party activists.

If so many rules have indeed been broken, maybe it is possible that other rules will fall too this cycle. Maybe (though probably not) Gingrich will rally again, much like Richard Nixon came back from being rejected in 1960 and from utter humiliation after being forced from office only to reemerge eventually as an elder statesman.

Or, maybe Republicans will head to Tampa without anyone locking up enough delegates to assure his nomination, creating a “brokered” convention. Of course, this can’t happen these days — much like all of the other things that can’t happen these days but have already occurred.

But before you agree that everything we have come to know is now irrelevant, that all of the rules have changed, consider this. If Romney does indeed hang on to win his party’s Republican nomination, regardless of how he does it, his victory will reinforce the most important rule of them all — that Republicans invariably nominate the next guy in line for the nomination.

Romney ran a strong race four years ago, and with financial muscle and the establishment’s backing, he entered this contest as the “next” Republican in line and therefore the frontrunner for the GOP nomination. If he is his party’s nominee,  that rule will remain intact, at least until 2016.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report


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