David Horsey / Los Angeles Times
Rick Santorum hoped to bowl his way to victory in the Wisconsin Republican primary Tuesday, but he left pins in the lane.
Still, Santorum proved he truly is the real conservative in the race. Sure, Mitt Romney wants to get government out of the way of business and Newt Gingrich wants to conduct a culture war, but Santorum wants to do something that is the essence of conservative: He wants to go back to the good old days.
In the America that Santorum envisions, husbands would work in manufacturing jobs and wives would be busy having lots of babies. On Saturday nights they’d take their kids bowling, and on Sunday mornings they’d all go to church.
Of course, there still are many people who live lives much like that, and Santorum has worked hard to win their votes. He visited bowling alleys all across Wisconsin, hitting strikes far more consistently than the typical presidential candidate. After an especially good day at a bowling alley in Sheboygan, Santorum told CBS News it proved something important: “That tells you that you’ve got someone here who can relate to the voters of Wisconsin, just like those of us in western Pennsylvania who grew up in the bowling lanes.”
One 40-year-old homemaker watching Santorum hurl the big black ball at the Pla-Mor Lanes in Chilton confirmed that his performance on the hardwood was convincing. She told a reporter, “If anybody can come to a bowling alley and hang out with everyone, I like that a lot.”
The problem for Santorum is numbers. There are half as many bowling alleys in the United States as there were in the 1960s, and there has been a big drop in the number of bowling leagues. There are fewer stay-at-home moms, fewer big families and fewer men with jobs that don’t require a college education. Santorum does have a genuine affinity with working class, church-going guys in bowling shirts, but in Wisconsin that was not enough to win.
In a general election, the prospect for a traditionalist like Santorum would likely be even more problematic. Communities used to meet at bowling alleys; now Facebook is the nation’s gathering place. There used to be jobs for high school graduates with strong arms and stamina; now, the pickings are slim for workers without some kind of education beyond 12th grade. The typical woman once centered her life around home and family; now, most women work, whether from choice or necessity. America was once predominantly white and Christian; now, it is browner and more diverse.
For better and worse, the country has changed. Take-back-America candidates like Santorum are going to have an even tougher challenge in future elections. A politician needs to meet the voters where they are, not lecture them on where he thinks they should be, so a campaign built on small-town homilies and working-class virtues may be hopelessly behind the times.
It doesn’t matter how many strikes you hit if no one is watching.