Friday, February 17, 2012

Michigan and Mitt

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder endorsed Mitt Romney for the Republican nomination on Thursday. If the voters of the state of Michigan were sitting governors, the former Massachusetts governor would be a lock to win the Michigan Primary on Feb. 28. As it is now, this best news Romney’s had in about a week may be the best news he gets for a while, as a wave of new polls indicate that the everyday people of Michigan aren’t as favorably inclined toward Mitt as the governor is.

Romney is thought to be in the fight of his campaign’s life, as former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s pay-as-you-go, pass-every-hat campaign is gaining ground with Republican voters in Michigan and around the country.

A Feb. 13 Mitchell/Rosetta Stone poll had Santorum over Romney, 34 percent to 25 percent. An MRG Michigan poll of likely Michigan voters (same date) gave Santorum a 10-point bulge, 43 percent to 33 percent. An American Research Group poll from Feb 11-12 gave Santorum a six-point edge.

Then came the heavyweights: By Thursday a plurality of state and national polls including Rasmussen, Gallup, Pew Research Center and PPP, all had Santorum outpointing Romney for the nomination, by a little or a lot. That’s a problem for Team Mittens; the breadth of the polling, not just in the state but nationally, suggests that whatever problems he faces in Michigan at the end of the month won’t end there or then.

For others still in this race, the rationale for going forward gets increasingly thin. Texas Rep. Ron (LibertyLibertyLiberty) Paul isn’t in it to win it anyway, merely hoping to run up the delegate count as a way to extract some kind of leverage at the convention in Tampa this August — a scenario that, given his poor showing in most every primary and opinion poll, gets more and more unlikely.

And for Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker and philosophical pit-bull mandarin of the GOP, the way forward is murky at best. He Who Speaks With Index Finger Pointing Skyward has made this nomination a highly personal one, all but threatening to sacrifice any semblance of party unity on the altar of payback. There’s been some thought that Newt may be strategizing an exit, a departure from the race that would throw his delegates behind Santorum.

But not yet; Gingrich has vowed to stay in the race all the way to the convention. But with a campaign running on fumes and generating increasingly sad election results since South Carolina, the chance of Newt’s having any gravitas in Tampa is dropping to a very low order of probability. At the rate he’s going, Newt Gingrich may be at the convention — or outside it — selling snacks and sodas from a food truck in the parking lot.

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It’s a two-man race right now, and Romney is well on his way to losing it.

For now, much of the punditburo has hunkered down behind its insistence that it’s all still Romney’s to lose. Much of the argument comes down to an abiding faith in the power of the conventional armamentarium of American politics: ground game, money, oppo research, TV ad buys, an army of fresh-faced interns willing to work for pizza and pictures with the candidate. All of which Romney has had at his disposal for — what, two, three years now? — and none of which has apparently done him a bit of good.

Romney has still failed to put himself across to voters as a credible conservative candidate; his victory at the CPAC gathering a week or so ago notwithstanding, most Republicans didn’t believe him when he announced himself to be “severely” conservative. They aren’t buying his road-to-Damascus conversion, and neither is anyone else.

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The problem for Romney now is the fact that, once a negative trendline begins to build in the polls, it starts to take on a momentum of its own, one that doesn’t always respond to the deus ex machina salvations he’s privately counting on.

Up to now (and this is something else the chattering class recites), in Michigan, Romney’s campaign has been relying on the storied “home state” advantage. He was born there, in Detroit, and his father, George Romney, was a popular governor there for six years, after leading a major car company to profitability. That’s why, the punditburo concludes, Romney has that native-son edge that could make the difference in the primary on Feb. 28.

Grand Rapids consultant Greg McNeilly, a former executive director of the state Republican Party told the Los Angeles Tmes that "[i]f he were to lose Michigan, a state that has been considered a Romney stronghold for so long, it would be a significant blow to his campaign."

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But looking at it more realistically, it’s easy to see how this “native son” advantage may be an illusion. Romney doesn’t live in Michigan, and hasn’t for 46 years, the Times reported. While he was born in Detroit, he was raised in the tony, privileged neighborhood of Bloomfield Hills, 20 miles away. His father the governor left office in 1969; he died in 1995.

All of this means that Mitt Romney is banking on being the beneficiary of warm fuzzies from Michigan voters, a large percentage of whom don’t know the family backstory (not having been alive to hear it), and who therefore don’t have any resonating sentiments about Romney the Native Son, the prodigal come home at last. That’s not the Mitt Romney they know.

They only know that the Mitt Romney who stood Thursday at a Farmington Hills campaign rally and said, “I love this state, it seems right here” doesn’t hang his fur-lined hat in the state he his father once ran as governor. And he hasn’t lived there for almost half a century.

They only know the Mitt Romney who was ready and willing to kick the state’s major manufacturing industry, carmaking, to the curb three years ago.

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As we get closer to the Michigan Primary (and the other one that same day, in the Arizona Territory), we can count on Romney to continue making the social conservative pivot. We’ll watch with interest as Romney tries to shape-shift, to pull a Zelig move, to transform himself into something he never was.

And we’ll watch the Michigan poll numbers, which suggest that Mitt Romney may pay the price for being today what he’s been for some time: A man who loved a state so much, he decided not to live there anymore.

Image credits: Romney: via MSNBC. Poll snapshots, Michigan primary projections: Five Thirty Eight blog at The New York Times. Gingrich: via The Huffington Post.

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