Heilemann: How Romney Did Just Enough, But No More, in Michigan

TOLEDO, OH - FEBRUARY 29: Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign rally at American Posts on February 29, 2012 in Toledo, Ohio. A day after winning the Michigan and Arizona primaries, Mitt Romney is campaigning in Ohio ahead of Super Tuesday. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Photo: Justin Sullivan/2012 Getty Images

Let’s not understate what Mitt Romney accomplished in Michigan yesterday — but let’s not overstate it, either. For Romney, the Republican primary in the Wolverine State had become a must-win proposition, necessary to assuage the mounting fears and doubts about his candidacy among the party Establishmentarians who had been his bulwark all along. Romney did indeed win, and a win is indeed a win, and there are no qualifications or caveats that will take that win away from him. But still! Just three points! In his home state! Against Rick Santorum! (Rick Santorum!) Man.

The Santorum campaign is spinning the narrowness of its loss as a kind of victory, which is obviously wack. Had Santorum run a halfway decent campaign in Michigan, performing in an even mildly consistent or competent fashion, he would likely have won the primary in a canter. Santorum has no one to blame — and Romney no one to thank — but Santorum for the opportunity he squandered. And yet, even so,  this will not be Santorum’s last chance to stop Romney in his tracks. That will come next week on Super Tuesday, March 6, and if you take a look at the Michigan exit polls, you see why the restored front-runner isn’t out of the woods yet.

We should note for the record that Romney won two primaries last night, the other in Arizona and by a ginormous margin — 47-27. But Romney ran there essentially unopposed: With the state’s large Mormon population, he entered the contest with a huge in-built advantage, and because the primary was winner-take-all, Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul decided not to waste resources in a place where finishing lower than first would net them no delegates.

With all eyes on them in Michigan, Romney and Santorum both turned in piss-poor performances — one winning ugly, the other losing hideous.
Each was afflicted by a different variant of political Tourette’s syndrome. Santorum’s is a more virulent and multi-dimensional strain, provoking gaffes at times tinged by chronic holy-rollerism (his declared desire to upchuck over JFK’s belief in separation of church and state) and at times by acute chip-on-shoulder-itis (his attack on Barack Obama as a “snob” for promoting policies to help humans acquire knowledge). Romney’s foot-in-mouth episodes, from boasts about his wife’s twin Caddies to name-checking his NASCAR team-owning pals, were less horrific but all too familiar, and suggest yet again that the ailment from which he suffers is a hybrid: Tourette’s blended with affluenza.

Despite all this, Romney and Santorum basically held together the rival electoral coalitions about which I wrote at length in my cover story in this week’s magazine: the regulars and red-hots. Bolstering Romney at the polls yesterday were the more secular, better-educated, and better-off voters who have backed him throughout the Republican nomination fight. According to the exit polls he won voters making between $100k and $200k by nine points (and those making over $200k by a whopping 27), college graduates by eight, and non-Evangelicals by fifteen points. Santorum, by contrast, won every income bracket under $100k by between two and eight points, Evangelicals by sixteen, strong tea-party supporters by eight, and very conservative voters by fourteen.

But maybe the key demographic split turned out to be age — and that broke to Romney’s clear advantage. Among Michiganders between 45 and 64 years old, who accounted for nearly half the electorate, Romney won by two points; and among those 65 and older, who made up another 24 percent, he clocked Santorum by sixteen. These older cohorts are comprised of folks who remember Romney’s father, George, a former governor of the state and iconic auto-industry boss. And their strong support for Mittens suggests that his avid playing of the favorite-son card proved effective.

That card will not be available to Romney on Super Tuesday, however. And the shirts-versus-skins schism that has emerged as a defining feature of the Republican electorate will be sharper in many of the ten states that vote that day. In Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Idaho, and Alaska, more than half the voters going to the polls are likely to be Evangelicals (whereas in Michigan the percentage was just 39 percent). In all those states, Romney will face an uphill climb against Santorum and even Gingrich. By contrast, the states in which Romney is all but guaranteed to do well may not provide him much political payoff. In Virginia, for example, neither Santorum nor Gingrich will be on ballot — a sign of organizational incompetence, for sure, but one that will make it hard for Romney’s people to spin a victory there as particularly meaningful. And then there’s Massachusetts, which not only is the state that Romney once governed but is regarded by many Republicans as an all-but-Communist enclave.

Which is why, for the next week, the same sets of eyes that were focused intently on Michigan will shift their gaze just slightly southward to Ohio — a state with a vast number of delegates on offer that also happens to be a pivotal battleground in the general election to come. If Romney can replicate his Michigan victory there and hold his own elsewhere, he may, just may, be in a position to start to make the argument that the nomination is (slowly, grindingly, but inexorably) coming within his grasp. If, however, Santorum bounces back, wins Ohio, and carries the other four or five states where he should run strong, it will all but guarantee that the nomination battle will carry on, in brutish fashion, all the way to June.

What will happen in the Buckeye State? Impolitic defers to his favorite political philosopher, Yogi Berra, who once said that “predictions are always difficult — especially about the future.” But note this: In a brand-new Ohio Poll released this morning by the University of Cincinnati, Santorum leads Romney by 11 points, 37-26. Which is to say that while Romney may have dodged a bullet in Michigan, the chamber isn’t empty and Rick Santorum still has his finger — when he isn’t wagging it at us sinners — on the trigger.