Rick Santorum appears on Piers Morgan Tonight

But has he done himself any favours?

In anticipation of last night's South Carolina primary, Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum appeared on Piers Morgan Tonight to talk policy, principles and family.

Santorum rightly predicted that he wouldn't win South Carolina - he finished third behind Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. However, he said he still hopes for a one on one with Mitt Romney and despite Romney and Gingrich's bigger budgets confidently stated that it's "game on" in Florida.

In terms of tactics Santorum said: "I'm a slow and steady kind of guy" and underlined the contrasts between himself and fellow conservative Newt Gingrich. When Morgan asked him "who would you rather be up against, the nice Newt Gingrich or the new nasty Newt?" a fired up Santorum told him: "That's the issue - you don't know what you're going to get with Newt." He admitted: "I'm not the guy you're going to be wowed with, but I'm steady and I'll fight for my convictions." "Steady Eddie" Santorum set himself apart from his fellow Republicans; branding himself as the antithesis to temperamental Newt, flip flopper Mitt Romney and "barking" (Morgan's word) Ron Paul.

He is also in stark contrast to former Republican hopefuls Herman Cain and Rick Perry who were famous for their embarrassing gaffes. Who can forget Cain's confusion over Libya and Perry forgetting which agencies he'd eliminate if he were president? Unquestionably Santorum is a smart man, not hiding behind a Reagan-esque grin or using southern charm to mask the fact that he's not in the know about all the issues - he's a man who knows his stuff.

But the real fight, Santorum stressed, is against Barack Obama - a man with whom Santorum was less than impressed when he worked with him in the Senate. "I didn't like the way he conducted himself," Santorum said. Unsurprisingly, then, Santorum's attitude and approach is at odds with the current president. While he may not ooze charisma and charm, the American people may welcome this and see him as the antidote to Obama's all style no substance leadership for which he has been criticised.

Santorum shone when he spoke about foreign policy, an area where fellow wannabe nominee Ron Paul drastically falls short. Morgan pushed him on Iraq asking him whether he, too, would have invaded and after a few attempts at evading the question Santorum admitted that he would have made the same decision. After 9/11 Santorum said his biggest concern was Iran, not Iraq - and it still is. "I would bomb Iran if I had to - no question," he said.

On Libya, Santorum said: "I wouldn't have gone into Libya - I would never put U.S. troops on the ground unless our national security was threatened." He criticised Obama's "indecisiveness," despite Morgan's observation that no US lives were lost and Gaddafi was successfully killed.

Less than inspiring, however, were Santorum's views on issues such as abortion and gay marriage due to his inability to separate his religion from his policies. "Life begins at conception" and abortion should be banned in every case - even rape and incest, Santorum stressed unequivocally. Morgan, who is famous for asking the tough questions, asked him how he would feel if his daughter was raped and "begged to have an abortion", to which Santorum replied: "I would council her to do the right thing" because "life is gift, no matter how horribly it is created." It's clear that for Santorum, his political principles win every time.

Santorum's wife, Karen, also joined the interview, saying that the biggest misconception about her husband is that "he's not nice." Santorum has certainly disproved that misconception during the interview, coming across as a likeable guy with none of the self-aggrandizing attitude of Mitt Romney or the volatility of Newt Gingrich. Santorum is a man of his convictions, although his consuming religious beliefs may alienate many moderates. Morgan even described Karen Santorum as her husband's "secret weapon" - a striking comparison to Michelle Obama in 2007.

Ultimately, it's unlikely that Santorum will win the Republican nomination, let alone the presidential election. He is restricted by his strict, misogynistic religious social agenda but while many may not agree with his policies, he remains a dark horse in the Republican race.

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Clinton vs Trump: How does the electoral college work?

A brief history.

If you have even the vaguest awareness of US politics, you'll no doubt recall the role Florida played in the 2000 presidential election. The result in the state was so close that arguments about recounts and hanging chads went on for weeks, before the result was finally settled – and the next president decided – by the US Supreme Court.

The odd thing about Bush v Gore, though, is that nobody questioned which of the two had more votes: it was Al Gore, by more than half a million. (The number of contested votes in Florida was something like a tenth of that.) To put it another way, it was always clear that more Americans wanted Gore as president than Bush.

And yet, the outcome of the election ignored that entirely. It turned instead on who had won Florida. That, the Supreme Court decided, had been Gore's opponent: George W. Bush became the 43rd president of the United States, and the rest is history.

So why did a man who everybody agreed had come second become president? Why did the whole thing end up turning on the number of votes in a few counties of former swamp?

History and geography

The answer comes down to that weirdly undemocratic American invention, the electoral college. The founding fathers, you see, did not actually intend for the president to be chosen by the people.

Much of the constitution was the work of the over-achieving Virginian delegation to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Their plan, written by James Madison, suggested that the president should be chosen by Congress.

That idea was rejected on the grounds that it would undermine the president's independence. Some delegates feared that allowing a bunch of men who spent all their time locked in a room together arguing pick the head of state would lead to “intrigue” (yes), and suggested the president should be chosen by popular vote instead.

So they settled on a compromise. Each state would pick “electors” – how they did so was their own business – and these would in turn pick the president. Senators and congressmen were specifically barred from becoming members of this electoral college; but an aspect of the original plan that survived was that the number of electors in each state would be equal to the number of representatives it had it Congress.

Some of the oddities in this system have been ironed out over time. By the mid 19th century most states were choosing electors by popular vote: the presidential election may be indirect, but it's an election nonetheless. After the 23rd Amendment passed in 1961, those who lived in Washington DC, previously disenfranchised because it isn't a state, were given the vote too (it gets three votes in the electoral college).

But others anomalies remain. Here are three:

1) A lack of proportion

One of the big issues in 1787 was persuading the original 13 states to agree to the new constitution at all. Many of the smaller ones (Delaware, New Hampshire) were nervous that, by joining the union, they would instantly be dominated by their much bigger neighbours (Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts).

To keep them on board, the Constitutional Convention agreed the “Great Compromise”. The size of the delegations each state sent to the House of Representatives would be roughly proportional to the size of its population; in the Senate, though, every state would get two senators, whether it had several million people, or three old blokes and a dog. In other words, the US constitution had to deliberately over-represent smaller states in Congress, just to persuade them to sign up to the thing in the first place.

All this still applies today – and because size of a state’s delegation to Congress determines the number of votes its gets in the electoral college, smaller states are over-represented in presidential elections, too. The result is that a vote in California is worth less than a third of a vote in Wyoming:

Image: Fzxboy/Wikimedia Commons.

2) A lack of faith

The people don't choose the president: the electoral college does, with electors generally voting based on the votes of the people in their state.

But the operative word there is “generally”: while most states have laws requiring electors to vote with the popular will, or rendering their vote void if they don't, some 21 states do not. So, occasionally, there are “faithless electors”, who don't vote the way their state wants them to. In the 57 presidential elections between 1788 and 2012, there have been 157 incidents of such faithlessness (although, to be fair, in 71 cases this was because the electorate's preferred candidate was dead).

This has never affected the outcome of an election: the closest was in 1836 when the Virginia delegation refused to vote for vice presidential candidate Richard Mentor Johnson on the grounds that he was having an affair with a slave. (Being massive racists, they were fine with the slavery and the abuse of power; it was the interracial sex they had a problem with.) But Martin Van Buren's election as president was never in doubt, and even Johnson was confirmed after a vote in the Senate.

Even in those states which don't have laws to punish faithless electors, becoming one is still often a bloody stupid thing to do, since it generally means betraying the party that made you an elector in the first place, an act which will almost certainly wreck your career. Nonetheless, it is constitutionally possible that, when the electoral college meets after November's election, some of its members will ignore the result entirely and propose, say, Kevin Spacey as the next president. And those are the votes that count.

3) A lack of interest

The biggest oddity of the system though is the fact of the electoral college at all. The voters don't pick the president: the electoral college does. The result is that presidential campaigns need to focus not on individual voters, but on states.

Most states allocate their electoral votes on a winner takes all basis. There are two exceptions to this: Nebraska and Maine both hand out one electoral vote to the winner in each congressional district, and two to the state-wide victor. This rarely makes any difference, since both states are small, and any candidate who carries the Maine 2nd is likely also to have carried the whole of Maine. Just occasionally, though, it does: in 2008 Obama narrowly carried the Nebraska 2nd (Omaha, basically), prompting grumpy local Republicans to redraw the boundaries to dilute the local Democratic vote and so ensure this wouldn't happen again.

In the vast majority of states, however, winning 50.1 per cent of the vote will be enough to get you 100 per cent of the electoral votes. In an election with more than two candidates, indeed, you don't even need to do that: a simple plurality will get you 100 per cent of the vote, too.

This, combined, with demographics, mean we already know how something like 363 of the 538 electoral votes on offer will go. Only around 13 states are considered competitive this year. In the other 37, plus the District of Columbia, we might as well already know the result.

The result is that, for the next few weeks, there will be endless reports about Florida, Virginia and Ohio. But you're not going to hear so much about how voters are feeling in California or Delaware or Arkansas or Texas. The first two will go for Clinton; the last two will go for Trump. The campaigns will ignore them; the voters may as well not show up. State-wide demographics mean the result is already clear.

In a true popular election, every vote would count equally. In the electoral college, they do not. The result, 16 years ago, was four weeks of legal wrangling over a few hundred votes in Florida. The result, this year, is that it’s entirely possible that Donald Trump will become president – even if Hillary Clinton gets more votes.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.