After Michigan, Can Romney Continue To Limp Forward?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 29 2012 1:27 AM

He’s Alive!

How Mitt Romney survived a near-death experience in Michigan.

Mitt Romney.
Mitt Romney won a narrow victory in Michigan on Tuesday night

Scott Olson/Getty Images.

In the state where Mitt Romney was born, his campaign did not die. Despite his many advantages in Michigan, the race was a nail-biter. In the end, Romney won 41 percent of the vote to 38 percent for Rick Santorum. “We didn’t win by a lot, but we won by enough but that’s all that counts,” said Romney at his victory party, looking relieved to have survived another near-death experience. In Arizona, he clobbered the former Pennsylvania senator 47 percent to 26 percent. By the end of the night, Romney captured more than 30 new delegates. On that score, he is now well ahead of his rivals.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Although Michigan was the 10th contest of the 2012 Republican primary, it was the first two-man race to test the fault lines of the Republican Party: a battle between the establishment candidate, Mitt Romney, and the populist candidate, Rick Santorum. In the end, both men weakened themselves. Romney underscored his fundamental vulnerability: He struggled to win party stalwarts in a head-to head fight despite superior finances, a vast organizational advantage, and local roots. Santorum’s opposition to everything from college to contraception frightened Republicans who think his values-laden and ideologically strident tone would not only cost him the presidential election but hurt House and Senate Republican candidates, too.

In another election season, Romney’s victories in Arizona and Michigan would suggest he has momentum. Perhaps it will this time. It didn’t after he won in New Hampshire or Florida. In this race, candidates have shown bursts of speed, but just as someone seems poised to break away, they run out of breath. So the race continues: one runner with emphysema (Santorum), the other with asthma (Romney). For the moment, Romney is back in the lead, lungs open and face rosy. But if past is prologue, he might soon feel a tickle in his throat.  

The future for Romney is unclear because his party is so openly divided. It was evident in the exit polls. Thirty-two percent of the voters said defeating Obama was the most important quality they looked for in a candidate. Of that group, Mitt Romney beat Rick Santorum handily, 61 percent to 24 percent. On the other side of the party were those who voted based on character and ideology. Twenty-five percent picked strong moral character as their No. 1 quality. Of those, Santorum was dominant, swamping Romney by 41 points, 57 percent to 16 percent. Of the 17 percent who voted based on who was the true conservative, Santorum beat Romney by an almost identical 40-point margin. One party, two worlds. 

Romney won in Michigan with a familiar coalition of older and wealthy voters. Fifty-five percent of voters said the economy was the most important issue in helping them determine their vote. Romney won that group by 17 points with 47 percent of the vote. There was also good news for Romney in that voters valued his time in the private sector, preferring a candidate with business experience over government experience 57 percent to 31 percent. This was the only large group that Romney won with a majority.

Santorum did very well with evangelical voters and those who identified themselves as “very conservative.” He won both groups by double digits. He also scored well with die-hard Tea Party members, but Romney was able to split the vote among the 52 percent who say they support the Tea Party. Romney showed that outside of the Party’s ideological purists, he could find support. Romney also won self-identified Republicans by 10 points. In the final days, he was able to grow his vote into Santorum’s territory more than Santorum was able to do the opposite.

Romney’s organization paid off the way it had in Florida. He identified his voters and encouraged them to vote by absentee ballot. CBS estimated that 22 percent of them did and Romney won that group 41 percent to 35 percent. He also won among independent voters and moderates.

Santorum did not benefit much from Democratic mischief-makers, though the pranksters did show up in the exit polls. Democrats voted overwhelmingly for Santorum, with 53 percent picking the former senator vs. the 17 percent who chose Romney. Among those self-identified as “somewhat liberal,” Santorum beat Romney 32 percent to 27 percent. But there just weren’t enough of them to change the outcome. Nine percent of the voters identified as Democrats, hardly more than the 7 percent who participated in 2008.

Now Rick Santorum faces the questions of viability that Mitt Romney once did. Does he have the discipline, the money, and the skill to win beyond his ultraconservative base? After conceding Michigan, Santorum immediately began a course correction. Speaking to his election night party, he opened by talking about his mother, who earned more money than his father. He talked about work-life balance. He retained his attacks on the Obama administration’s overreach but kept his emphasis on his plans for the economy.

Now the landscape changes again. There are 10  contests on the March 6 Super Tuesday. Ohio is the biggest prize. Santorum has been ahead in several Ohio polls, but more than 40 percent of those surveyed have said their support is soft. Romney will get a bump, but he won’t have a home state advantage in Ohio, a state that has more evangelical voters than Michigan. Romney—unlike Santorum and Newt Gingrich—also had his act together enough to get on the Virginia ballot. But the other big states—Tennessee, Georgia, and Oklahoma—don’t look good for Romney at the moment.

For the last several weeks, Santorum has been inching toward becoming the conservative alternative to Romney. If that holds, the party split Romney barely survived tonight could continue to bedevil him. However, Super Tuesday will widen the race, and with it could mark the return of Gingrich, who believes he will do well in Southern states. If Gingrich rises again and keeps splitting the vote with Santorum, it could be a long summer with Santorum winning the Midwest, Gingrich the South, and Romney the states of any true size. If that’s the case, then this may not be the last time Mitt Romney’s campaign is born again.