If Mitt can’t connect with Michigan Republicans, who can he connect with?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 27 2012 1:22 PM

I’m One of You! No, Really!

Romney and Santorum are desperately trying to connect with voters. But if Mitt fails, it could be fatal.

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He tries to make a virtue of his lack of polish, making a clear reference to Romney's overly precise campaign. Santorum says his personal approach is a more authentic one. "I never have to worry about what I say because I will say what's [in] my heart. I might not say it the most articulate sometimes and I understand that, but I have no teleprompters. I answer questions from the public in front of cameras. I answer questions from the press every day. I don't hide. I don't hide from the public. I don't have structured events where only my friends are in front of me to take questions. When someone doesn't agree with me, I tell them that answer even if they don't want to hear that answer because you know what, they're entitled to the truth.”

Across town two hours later, Romney draws about 150 more people than Santorum's 500 or so. He is sharp and relatively brisk, speaking about a third as long as Santorum. He makes the same point about the threats to the American Dream. He recites verses from “America the Beautiful” to kindle patriotic sentiment as he has for months now. The language echoes Santorum’s language: "The creator had endowed us with our rights, not the state, not the king but the creator and that we would be a state that trusted in God. We would be one nation under God." But at a Santorum event, the audience would have cheered the use of the word God, seeing it as an argument against those who would deny His place in the American experiment. At the Romney rally, the line gets no response. It's boilerplate, not bomb throwing. 

Romney voters care about electability, which is why the candidate makes the pitch explicit. "I'm the only guy in the race who can beat Barack Obama." After his events, Romney's ability to beat Obama is cited by every voter I meet. The biggest reaction Romney gets is when he says, "This is a president who is out of ideas, out of excuses, and in 2012, he's going to be out of office." It's not that Romney delivers the line that well. People are just excited to imagine a world without Obama.

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Romney appears to be making some headway by highlighting Santorum's ties to Washington. Santorum says Romney is just a manager who wants to tinker with Washington instead of change it. Romney makes the same charge. "My team is the people of Michigan and America and I'm going to fight for you. If you want to send someone to Washington who is working around the edges to make little changes here and changes there and work with this subcommittee and that subcommittee, then there are plenty of other people to choose. But if you want someone who will fundamentally change Washington, and bring us more jobs and less debt and smaller government, then I'm your guy."

Santorum is also too conservative for some Romney voters. "He is way out there. He's as far right as Obama is left," says Ann Vettel from Flushing, Mich. "I'd love him for my minister, but he talks too much about personal things. Personal things don't run the United States."

Both candidates are pitching radical change, but Mitt Romney's is a far more comfortable brand of radicalism. It doesn't come in radical packaging. It doesn't seem off topic. He's talking about jobs and spending, not whether colleges turn people into radical atheists or some speech President Kennedy delivered 50 years ago. 

If Mitt Romney doesn't win Michigan, it will be devastating. He has so many advantages in the state. He has much more money, a better organization, and biographical ties. Rick Santorum's lack of discipline and weak debate performance also give Romney an opening. If he can't win here, his argument about how those advantages will help him capture future states will seem absurd. Even if Romney is able to win in a safe state—which, in truth, may now qualify as a comeback state—the questions about his candidacy and ability to appeal to conservatives will not die in Michigan. In states where he doesn't have personal ties, his appeal has come across with all the sincerity of a LinkedIn invitation. No one ever became president without his party regulars thinking he is one of them.