Jonathan Chait:

Santorum has attracted a terrible reputation among the overclass. He is defined by his crude, bigoted social conservatism, which colors the broader perception of him as an extremist. This in turn leeches out into a sense, often reflected in news coverage, which likewise reflects the social biases of the overclass, that Santorum is a fringe candidate who would repel swing voters.

In fact, there are, very roughly speaking, two kinds of swing voters. One kind is economically conservative, socially liberal swing voters. This is the kind of voter you usually read about, because it’s the kind most familiar to political reporters – affluent and college educated. But there’s a second kind of voter at least as numerous – economically populist and socially conservative. Think of disaffected blue-collar workers, downscale white men who love guns, hate welfare, oppose free trade, and want higher taxes on the rich and corporations. Romney appeals to the former, but Santorum more to the latter.

Of course, he hasn’t just attracted a terrible reputation among the overclass – he lost his last reelection bid by 18 points. But I think Chait is missing something when he describes Santorum as representing “crude, bigoted social conservatism.”

Santorum’s social conservatism isn’t crude and bigoted. It’s ideological. Now, he may (or may not) have come to his extreme positions on social issues via personal disgust, but what distinguishes him is not that disgust but his extreme ideological fervor. And this characteristic is evident in areas beyond his social conservative views – most notably, in foreign policy.

There is indeed a bloc of swing voters that fits Chait’s description – some of them were probably Huckabee voters, some were, once upon a time, Buchanan voters, or Perot voters. A right-wing populist would, in theory, make an effective foil for Barack Obama, who, because of his personal characteristics and style and because of his policies (which appear to have been very solicitous of established interests like the banks and insurers, while not having been very successful at bringing down the sky-high unemployment rate) is going to have a tough time with downscale whites.

But Santorum is only secondarily a populist. He’s primarily a crusader. I almost mean that literally – he defended the justice of the actual crusades in a speech last year. Santorum is a conviction candidate, and if he’s the nominee he’s going to run on what he believes. And what he believes is that we are being way too easy on not just Iran, but Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, North Korea.

Is this what these swing voters want to hear? That the ultimate proof that Obama is “un-American” is that he hasn’t launched a world-wide military offensive against the enemies of freedom?

I’m skeptical. And I’m skeptical that the typical swing voter of the type Chait is referring to is actually motivated by Santorum’s ideological social conservatism either. That kind of voter probably is alienated by hostility or even indifference to their social conservatism – they’d rather see a candidate be anti-abortion, anti-same-sex-marriage, maybe even anti-women-in-combat, etc. than aggressively pro- any of those things. But it’s a question of emphasis. The people who are primarily motivated by these issues are probably already ideological voters, and will vote Republican – and show up to vote Republican – regardless. Downscale swing voters I’d expect to be motivated by other matters, even if they were more comfortable with a socially-conservative candidate. A Santorum general election campaign that emphasized the centrality of social issues would seem to a swing voter not so much offensive as off-base.

At least I hope so. I find the highly ideological character of Santorum’s mind to be quite scary, much scarier than the specifics of his views. I like to think that this character will be rejected by the general electorate as, well, kind of un-American. But we’ll see. The people elected a guy named Barack Hussein Obama last time. Anything can happen.