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Rick Santorum and the Imperfect Target Audience

Posted: September 22, 2015 | By: Aaron Feldman Tagged: From the Campaign Trail
Sen. Rick Santorum speaks at Drake University on Monday at Cartwright Hall. Photo by Aaron Feldman.

Sen. Rick Santorum speaks at Drake University on Monday at Cartwright Hall. Photo by Aaron Feldman.

Drake University is certainly becoming a popular destination. Just days after hosting the focus group in response to the Republican debate, presidential candidate Rick Santorum stopped by for a visit.

While entering, the charismatic former senator smiled and shook hands with students, even stopping to take a selfie or two. Right off the bat, it was clear Santorum was not your typical Washington politician. Sporting jeans, he had the casual look of an everyday Iowan and yet commanded the attention of everyone in the room.

Santorum presented himself as a Washington outsider capable of shaking things up. Indeed, Santorum is no stranger to surprising others.  Against the prediction of many political analysts, he managed to beat seven-term incumbent Democrat Doug Walgren in Pennsylvania’s 18th district in 1990. He went on to join the “Gang of Seven” an influential group of GOP lawmakers best known for ruthlessly attacking corruption in the Democratic Party.

He spent about five minutes talking about his career and accomplishments and spent another hour fielding questions from the audience. When asked about high incarceration rates and police brutality, Santorum said that holding cops too accountable makes them afraid to do their jobs. Claiming that high incarceration rates weren’t about race, he held the “breakdown of the traditional family” largely responsible for high crime rates and other problems. Santorum went on to explain that the bully pulpit is the most powerful tool a President can use, and he would utilize it to talk about the power of family values. His message, he indicated, is possibly even more powerful than any legislative action could be.

However, Drake student and host of the bipartisan political podcast “The Widening Gyre” John Wingert was not convinced. “To assiduously assert that we need nuclear families to end income inequality, [and] systemic racism,” he said, “is myopic and pressing facts into the mold of one’s agenda.” Indeed, being raised in a single-parent family, I had a hard time connecting with Santorum. However, fellow student — and “Gyre’ co-host — Ryan Wiskerchen found his commitment to his convictions admirable, adding that the man definitely “means what he says.” I agree.

Santorum struck Wiskerchen as very authentic, and admired how he didn’t pander to the crowd. Indeed, Santorum held fast to his values even though most Drake students would not fit into his evangelical, tea-party demographic that makes up such a large part of his support base. At an institution with large LGBT support, Santorum praised the actions of Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis and lambasted the Supreme Court’s decision, even going so far as to question its legitimacy. Although many may have found Santorum’s commitments to his values admirable, I am not sure his values aligned with every Drake student.

And most college students in the room were probably concerned with the issue of student loan debt. When asked about this topic, Santorum said he did not support additional grants for students to help pay for school. It wouldn’t be fair, he argued, to make American taxpayers subsidize costs for people who would go on to make more than them and receive nothing in return. He suggested aspiring, low-income students should go to community college for two years and then finish up at Drake for the last two. Although practical, this was a bold suggestion, and I am also not sure if this was the response Drake students were looking for.

When one of Santorum’s staffers passed out a sheet requesting contact information and suggested additional ways to get involved, it was returned with relatively few email addresses. It appeared that Santorum had the respect of the audience, but he has a lot of campaigning to do before he wins the votes. His steadfast commitment to his values were commendable, but they may need some tweaking for the college demographic.