The former Pennsylvania Senator might be well-known on Capitol Hill, but his name more regularly produces blank stares in places like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, if recent polling is any guide. The likely Republican presidential candidate knows he needs to expand his name identification.
Santorum can only hope voters don’t turn to Google, the world’s most popular Internet search engine, to learn more about him.
Try it for yourself: Enter “Rick Santorum” into Google. In a fraction of a second you’ll have hundreds of thousands of results. But two of the top four cite a graphic definition for a sexual neologism. In this case, the neologism is a reference to anal sex.
This, of course, is no accident.
Santorum himself sounded slightly defeated when asked about it recently.
“It’s one guy. You know who it is. The Internet allows for this type of vulgarity to circulate. It’s unfortunate that we have someone who obviously has some issues. But he has an opportunity to speak,” Santorum told Roll Call.
Santorum’s Google problem began in 2003, when gay sex-advice columnist Dan Savage sought to mock Santorum’s comments on homosexuality. Then the third-most-powerful Republican in the Senate, Santorum told the Associated Press that April that gay sex could “undermine the fabric of our society.” The interview touched on a Supreme Court case related to sexual privacy, and Santorum compared homosexual acts to allowing for “man on child, man on dog” relationships.
“And if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does,” he said at the time.
Savage soon created the website spreadingsantorum.com, tied to a contest in which he asked readers to submit definitions for the term “santorum.”
It would be among the first “Google bombs” in the modern political era. Using extensive links to other sites, Savage soon ensured that the winning definition would be among the top search results. (The search yields even less flattering sites if users search for the Republican’s last name alone.)
Those search results — not for the squeamish — have been the subject of viral Internet chatter for years. The nationally syndicated Savage inspired a coalition of gay activists and liberals from across the country to spread the term as widely as possible, creating a meme that helped now-Sen. Bob Casey (Pa.) unseat Santorum in 2006, and, ultimately, one that makes Santorum’s presidential hopes laughable in some circles.
Will the typical Iowa caucus-goer be comfortable with the White House hopeful’s explanation? Roll Call asked Santorum why he didn’t reach out to Google to try to remedy the problem. He said he never contacted the search giant directly, and his longtime consultant John Brabender dismissed the problem as a matter of free speech.
“There’s still the First Amendment,” Brabender said.
But Roll Call has learned that former staffers consulted technology experts years ago about their options. Ultimately, they found there was little they could do.
“You can bury anything on the Internet,” said David Urban, a Santorum ally and former chief of staff for former Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.). “But at what financial cost and at what political cost? You can bury a bad story. But how do you bury your own name?”
Well, anyone can buy Google ads tied to unfriendly searches, a tactic President Barack Obama’s campaign used to combat myths about his citizenship and religion. But any skilled Web user could deploy the same method Savage used — getting thousands of bloggers to link to a more complimentary site and take it viral.
Urban suggested that Santorum could use the Google problem to his advantage.
“The site’s completely gross. But I don’t think it’s a problem politically for Rick running for president. Quite the opposite,” he said. “If you’re Rick Santorum and you’re making an argument that there’s certain people that wish you ill, there’s exhibit No. 1. You say: ‘You want to see my battle scars? Google my name. You don’t think I’ve been in the trenches for years? I’ve got the scars to prove it.’”
It’s unclear whether Savage imagined his experiment would live on for nearly a decade. The website hasn’t been updated since July 2004, but it remains a prominent search result in early 2011, just when Santorum is laying the groundwork for capturing the Republican nomination for president.
It’s likely that Savage would be pleased. In a Jan. 15, 2004, column, he said it was “wonderful” that his santorum website “is now the first thing that comes up on Google after Sen. Santorum’s own websites.” In the column, Savage responded to a reader and encouraged the media to pick up the story: “My readers and I work like hell to appropriate Sen. Santorum’s name, we succeed beyond our wildest dreams.”
Savage did not respond to repeated interview requests, but he told Mother Jones last fall that now that Santorum is obviously a White House candidate, “I’m going to have to sic my flying monkeys on him.”
Indeed, Santorum’s views on homosexuality won’t help him with gay voters, according to R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans.
Cooper declined to address the Google issue directly but said that “Sen. Santorum’s messaging when it comes to one’s sexual orientation is wrong and divisive for our nation and our party.”
“In the 2010 election cycle, 31 percent of self-identified gay and lesbian voters chose to vote Republican,” he continued. They “are part of the big tent that is going to help us win back the United States Senate and the White House next year. ... Now is not the time for our party to get off message because of the personal viewpoints of certain politicians. Now is the time to focus on the critical matters at hand.”
Denis Dison, a spokesman for the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which helps openly gay candidates win elected office, accused Santorum of using the presidential nominating process to draw attention to his “outrageous” social views.
Santorum, meanwhile, suggested a double standard, especially in what appears to be a new era of civility in the wake of the Arizona shootings.
“It’s just a sad commentary,” he told Roll Call. “You want to talk about incivility. I don’t know of anybody on the left who came to my defense for the incivility with respect to those things.”
Urban called on liberal leaders to do just that.
“If somebody had a website up that maligned somebody who wasn’t a white, Christian, conservative, male, Rachel Maddow’s head would explode,” he said. “Where’s Rachel Maddow on this?”
Dison offered Santorum a suggestion: “I think that civility in politics is a fantastic goal. ... Speaking from the LGBT community, we wish he would practice it.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.