Did Homophobia Sink Santorum's Presidential Campaign?

Michael K. Lavers READ TIME: 2 MIN.

The proverbial fat lady finally sang on former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's presidential aspirations on Tuesday with the suspension of his campaign.

"I walked out of the Iowa caucus victory and said 'game on,'" he said during a press conference in Gettysburg, Pa., with his wife and several of his children. "I know a lot of folks are gonna write-maybe even those at the White House-game over, but this game is a long, long way from over."

Santorum's unexpected surge after his narrow victory against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the Iowa Republican caucuses certainly caught many political observers and pundits off guard. The former Pennsylvania senator went on to won the Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and Tennessee GOP primaries and the Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota and North Dakota Republican caucuses. In spite of these sustained victories, however, Santorum was unable to gain sustained traction among mainstream Republican voters.

What happened?

The social conservative's strong opposition to marriage for gays and lesbians came under increased scrutiny on the campaign trail, as evidenced when a group of college students repeatedly challenged Santorum on the issue during a town hall at New England College in Henniker, N.H., ahead of the first-in-the-nation presidential primary in January. LGBT rights group blasted Santorum last September after he described the repeal of the ban on openly gay and lesbian servicemembers during a Republican presidential debate in Orlando, Fla., as "playing social experimentation with our military right now." The former presidential candidate told Fox News' Megyn Kelly the next day that he "condemns" those in the audience who booed the gay soldier who asked the question about 'don't ask, don't tell.'

A Gallup poll last May shows that 53 percent of Americans support marriage for same-sex couples. More significantly, only one percent of those who took part in the Conservative Political Action Committee straw poll in Feb. 2011 said stopping nuptials for gays and lesbians was a top priority.

"After a long and drawn out primary season, Republicans are looking forward to changing the focus toward President Obama and Democrats in Congress," said R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, after Santorum suspended his campaign. "The departure of Rick Santorum's divisive social politics from the race puts moderate, independent and younger conservative voters in play."

Santorum said in his Gettysburg speech that he would help presumptive GOP presidential nominee Romney defeat Obama in November. His political capital among social conservatives could very well benefit the former Massachusetts governor ahead of this summer's Republican National Convention in Tampa. The question remains, however, whether this support will even matter.

The primary takeaway from Santorum's failed presidential campaign is that overtly homophobic rhetoric against marriage equality and other LGBT-specific issues does not equate to an effective campaign strategy. Romney should take note if he hopes to stand a chance against Obama in November.

by Michael K. Lavers , National News Editor

Based in Washington, D.C., Michael K. Lavers has appeared in the New York Times, BBC, WNYC, Huffington Post, Village Voice, Advocate and other mainstream and LGBT media outlets. He is an unapologetic political junkie who thoroughly enjoys living inside the Beltway.

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