official: Mitt Romney has become the Republican Party’s third alleged frontrunner
and the third “comeback kid” in the ’08 campaign’s two-week history. Yesterday’s
Michigan primary highlighted more than Republican indecision; it also further
underscored the futility of polls and confirmed that the party’s underlying
dynamics remain inhospitable to (at least) one of his media-anointed fellow frontrunners.
nine-point victory in a primary open to independents and Democrats revisited
this campaign’s leitmotif: the media’s
preferred candidates fizzle and their ever-present polling data diminish the strength of the more conservative candidate. As
in New Hampshire, all major polls showed a neck-and-neck
race; only the Mason-Dixon poll, taken a week ago, came close to
approximating the results.
the media are learning the truth of Yogi Berra’s words, “It’s tough to make
predictions, especially about the future,” they continue to try. They took the
occasion of McCain’s New Hampshire win to increase the stature of their
favorite Republican. Another kind of polling data reveal a GOP indecisive about
its eventual nominee but decidedly unsuited for McCain.
the numbers, this primary was a blowout defeat for McCain, and it would have been more
embarrassing yet had the state – a projected “dead heat” – not allowed registered
independent and Democratic “crossover voters” to participate. In future
primaries, he will have to compete for Republicans, whom he lost badly. Romney
won the primary 39-30 percent, a larger victory than McCain enjoyed in 2000,
when registered Republicans made up a minority (48
percent) of voters. According to exit polls, this year John McCain won over:
Democrats (41-33) and independents (35-29), who together made up 32 percent of the vote;
“Moderates” (also 33 percent of the electorate), by 40-34;
members (43-27), though he lost among their family members (22-40);
voters (40-31); and
who view the Bush administration negatively (37-28), especially those “angry”
at the president (39-23).
another way, McCain carried the Democratic portion of the Republican electorate
– and given the uncontested Democratic primary, precious few of them.
Romney, on the other hand, won big among registered Republicans (41-27), who
made up 68 percent of voters. This is roughly in keeping with
McCain’s showing in 2000, when he lost
GOP members by 42 points (67-25). Romney won conservatives handily (41-23),
especially those who called themselves “Very Conservative” (48-11), together
some 53 percent of voters. (He also barely won “liberals.”) Of considerable
interest, the governor (who happens to be a Mormon) beat
Mike Huckabee among born again Christians by five points.
highlighting the damage McCain has done to himself within his party, the
results showed the people experiencing Michigan’s “one-state recession” prefer Ronald
Reagan’s economic policies to those of Gerald Ford.
A Different Kind of Leadership
won veterans (41-32) and those who believe Iraq is the most important issue (41-31).
However, he also won antiwar voters (36-29), especially those who “strongly
disapprove” of the war (35-22) – which means much of this support came from
those who disapprove of his main selling point: the fact that he was “right
about the surge.” (Romney barely beat Ron Paul among this segment of the electorate.) The 55 percent of voters who listed the economy as their main
concern gave Mitt a lopsided victory (42-29). Running against a lion of the
Senate like McCain, the one-term governor
won a lion’s share of those voters whose most important criterion was “experience”
(52-40). This indicates the Wolverine State is looking for a different kind of
experience, a CEO instead of a war hero.
voters’ pocketbook issues and desire for economic revitalization plays into
Romney’s strength: he projects competence. Sometimes criticized as “too
perfect,” he has the credentials and alternative leadership to back it up. The Brigham
Young valedictorian graduated Harvard Law and
Business cum laude before turning
around Bain & Company and saving the 2002 Winter Olympics. He then took Massachusetts
from deficits to surpluses, cutting taxes by millions and reducing unemployment
by one percent – a fact
most relevant in Michigan, which has the highest unemployment rate in the
percent), more than two percent higher than the national average.
The number of voters who said the economy is most important issue nationally has more
than doubled since September. If a market correction makes the economy the nation’s
leading issue, Romney – all-but written off last week – may have a
compelling case to make to primary voters.
a victory of optimism over Washington-style pessimism,” said Romney in his
victory speech (carefully timed to drown out McCain’s consession), taking aim
at McCain’s dispeptic pronouncement
that jobs lost in Motown’s flagging auto industry “are not coming back.” Romney’s
“optimism” theme calls to mind the sunny disposition of Ronald Reagan – and not
without calculation. McCain won among those who favored balancing the budget over cutting
taxes (37-32) – a slight majority of voters – but Romney won twice as many of those who believed tax cuts were the best way to revitalize the economy. McCain
has earned his budget hawk reputation through a principled, Senate-long
opposition to pork barrel spending. However, he has also antagonized
supply-side conservatives, opposing both Bush tax cuts and repeatedly calling
such moves irresponsible. Ironically, those tax cuts alone allow McCain to run
as a tax-cutter; McCain now campaigns against Democratic proposals to repeal
the tax cuts he opposed, in effect running against raising this tax, a modest
proposal to be sure. It seems as though Michigan Republicans echoed George W.
Bush’s devastating debate line of 2000: “Is that your final answer?”
won New Hampshire by running ads questioning Romney’s foreign policy
credentials. Yet in an executive capacity, Romney appears competent on this front,
as well. In August 2006, when he learned of a failed terrorist plot to blow up
U.S.-bound foreign flights, Romney called
the National Guard into Logan Airport. In a typically business-savvy move,
this not only provided added security but also eased
congestion. When the State Department allowed former
Iranian president Mohammad Khatami to travel the country at taxpayer
expense, Romney denied
him state protection. And denying all PC
niceties, he dared suggest
the government follow students on visa from state sponsors of terrorism and wiretapping
imams suspected of inciting their mosques to terrorism. It may be a slender
record, but it denotes one attribute Romney has that McCain lacks: executive
Michigan win does not make Romney a “frontrunner” so much as it shows the
Republican nomination’s own course correction. Iowa, a haven of interest bloc
voters, rewarded the evangelical candidate, as it did to a lesser degree in 1988
(Pat Robertson’s #2 finish) and 2000 (Alan Keyes’ surprisingly strong bronze
medal), both years far more clear-cut than 2008. New Hampshire reintroduced foreign policy into the race, but McCain’s
strong ties to the Granite State and the state’s own penchant for favoring “mavericks”
in its open primary may have skewed the results.
no one can be certain about the future, it appears likely Republicans will
finally commence selecting the most electable conservative. With special
interest-dominated caucuses and home states out of the picture, and the next
several contests open only to Republican voters, the race will finally begin. Romney
is now positioned to present his strengths: private sector leadership, executive
experience, and a stance reasonably acceptable to all Republican constituencies.
As a bona fide primary winner (Wyoming notwithstanding) and as the candidate
currently leading the delegate count, he can once again campaign as everyone’s
second choice and try to convince the party to coalesce around him as the
conservative alternative to McCain/Giuliani.
goal will be complicated by Saturday’s South Carolina primary, where Romney had
pulled up stakes, and where several candidates are in a statistical tie for
different parts of the electorate. Romney shows greater vitality than he should
in a state where he pulled his TV ads. John McCain benefits from the fact that
the state is home to 413,000
veterans and “is in the midst of its largest, single-unit deployment of
National Guard troops since World
War II.” However, McCain has often underscored his outspoken centrism
with a sharp poke-in-the-eye for conservatives. Bob Jones University’s home
state should favor Mike Huckabee, but pollsters contend he has been in a freefall
in the Palmetto State since winning Iowa. Huckabee made a covert play for
western Michigan’s evangelicals, with virtually nothing to show for it last
night. According to the most
recent Rasmussen poll, he has lost five points in South Carolina since last
Thursday, with Fred Thompson picking up four percent. Thompson is surging on
the strength of his conservative message and renewed (or more appropriately, “newed”)
campaign vigor. He may overcome setbacks early in his campaign to unite
conservatives around his more consistent voting record. A strong showing in
South Carolina would help cement his bid as “the consistent conservative”
heading into Super Tuesday. After Florida, the compressed schedule will make “Tsunami
Tuesday” a national primary.
nomination is far from over. But last night’s primary suggests the contours the
nominee will take, and they lean to the Right.