Why Michiganders will turn on their native son Mitt Romney.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 11 2008 7:46 AM

Mitt vs. Michigan

Romney may be a native son, but he represents everything that Michiganders can't stand.

Mitt Romney. Click image to expand.
Mitt Romney

Many of the same pundits who predicted Mitt Romney would be a natural front-runner in New Hampshire have predicted that he would be a natural front-runner in the Michigan primary on Tuesday. After all, Mitt grew up in the state, which is not an evangelical stronghold, and bears a resonant Michigan name. His father, George Romney, was chairman of AMC Motors from 1954-62, and then served as governor of Michigan from 1962-68.

But a recent poll shows Mike Huckabee slightly ahead of Romney, with John McCain a close third. And to this Michigan native—one who left nearly 20 years ago but who returns with some frequency—Romney's struggles back home are not surprising. Romney being Romney, there's still time for him to change his positions on key issues. But the ground he's staked out thus far would seem to leave him singularly ill-equipped to do well in today's Michigan.

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The state of Michigan has a great deal going for it—a great and extensive public university system, abundant fresh water, and solid Midwestern values. (It also exports troublemaking wiseacres to the coasts to work in opinion journalism, such as my Slateelders and Michigan natives Michael Kinsley and Jack Shafer.) But for the past 30-odd years, Michigan has been up against it, macroeconomically speaking. The American auto industry, the longtime economic engine of the state, is in long-term decline. New industries haven't emerged to take its place. Michigan's economy is a little like the state's weather, which is heavily influenced by the lake effect—long periods of gray punctuated by too-brief spells of blue sky. It's not uncommon for Michigan to be covered by a pall of clouds while the rest of the nation basks in sunshine. In November, Michigan sported the nation's highest unemployment rate, at 7.4 percent. This state, which never got much of a boost from the housing boom—land is plentiful and the population has barely budged since 2000—has been among the hardest hit by the housing bust. In December, the Detroit Free Press printed the list of properties delinquent on property taxes in Wayne County (the county that includes Detroit and many of its suburbs). The list of 180,000 properties ran 121 pages.

So, what does Romney have going against him in Michigan? He's an unabashed free-trader in one of the few states where industrial unions (the most implacable foes of free trade this side of John Edwards) still have a significant presence. He's selling himself as a Reagan-esque optimist in a state where pessimism reigns (and frequently with good reason). His economic policies—extending the Bush tax cuts, running away from his own successful efforts to expand the social safety net in Massachusetts, essentially ignoring the housing mess—may resonate with the dwindling core of wealthy Michiganders. But they may do little to attract the state's shrinking ranks of Reagan Democrats.

On the campaign trail, Romney has presented himself alternately as a Christian Coalition ideologue and as a pragmatic, can-do corporate fixer-upper in the mold of Chrysler savior Lee Iacocca. He pledges to do for America what he did for corporations when he ran Bain Capital's private equity business. But these days, private equity is a dirty word for many Michigan voters—even the Republican members of the managerial class. Private equity doesn't signify profits and fortunes. It signifies Cerberus, the new owner of Chrysler, which is presiding over huge job cuts. That's probably why Mike Huckabee's decided to turn his dig at Romney—"most Americans want their next president to remind them of the guy they work with, not the guy who laid them off"—into a television advertisement.

Like Rudy Giuliani, Romney has painted the world's Muslims and Arabs as an undifferentiated mass of bloodthirsty terrorists. "This is about Shia and Sunni," Romney said last year. "This is about Hezbollah and Hamas and al-Qaida and the Muslim Brotherhood." Michigan is the state with the highest concentration of Arab-Americans in the nation. While Arab-Americans constitute only about 1 percent of the state's population—about 115,000 people—and many are Christians, Michigan's Arab-Americans are still a significant voting bloc. (Back in 2000, George Bush successfully courted them.)

Finally, Romney is a native son that the natives don't remember. Sure, George Romney was an iconic figure in Michigan—but that was nearly a half-century ago. Recent immigrants, or people who were born in the last 40 years, have no familiarity with the things that George Romney stood for—American Motors and the state's legacy of moderate Republicanism. If you were old enough to vote for George Romney in his last successful gubernatorial campaign, 1966, you'd be at least 62 today. 

Romney is also running against recent history. In 2006, the Republican son of a wealthy iconic Michigander ran for statewide office, campaigning on a platform of tax cuts and right-wing social policy. Dick DeVos, the son of Richard DeVos, the billionaire founder of Amway, spent tens of millions of dollars of his own money as he ran for governor, and  lost—badly.

Daniel Gross is a longtime Slate contributor. His most recent book is Better, Stronger, Faster . Follow him on Twitter.