Even though Rick Santorum has ended his campaign for the Republican nomination, he did achieve something rather impressive. Despite having little money or media buzz, he managed to become the only true anti-Romney alternative in what was a very crowded field. He won 11 contests, far more than any other candidate besides Romney. Once the voting started, Santorum was the only candidate who at least had a small chance of stopping Romney.

This naturally leads to the question, is Santorum really a highly skilled politician, or was he simply the least bad Romney alternative in a field of highly flawed candidates? The answer could play an important role in whether or not Santorum could succeed in a possible 2016 run.

Santorum has been involved in politics for decades, and he clearly has some real experience and skills.  But it seems his success here was mostly due to others’ weaknesses. Santorum didn’t really beat the other Romney alternatives who surged before him as much as he simply watched them self-implode.

  • Rick Perry destroyed his campaign by failing to talk in complete sentences. If Rick Perry managed to consistently string five words together without messing up, Santorum would never had gotten as far as he did.
  • Herman Cain’s campaign fell apart quickly once details of his problematic personal life were revealed.
  • Jon Huntsman somehow convinced himself that the Republican base was unwilling to rally around Romney because Romney is a moderate Mormon who is the out of touch rich scion of a powerful family. Yet Huntsman thought this meant the base would instead embrace him, even though Huntsman is also a moderate Mormon who is the rich scion of a powerful family.
  • Newt Gingrich led Santorum for a while, but Gingrich’s incredibly high negatives with regular voters, massive amounts of baggage and horribly managed campaign eventually undid him.

It is tough to think of a single other candidate Santorum actually beat; he just watched them fail. The base only turned to Santorum after almost ever other alternative in turn proved themselves to be deeply flawed.

Probably the strongest evidence for Santorum’s inherent weakness is that Mitt Romney easily beat him, even though Romney has historically bad favorability ratings.

There is no doubt that Santorum was the best and strongest of the many Romney alternatives this cycle, but that was not a high bar to clear. Being the best of a bad lot still doesn’t mean you are actually good.