Michigan was always meant to be Mitt Romney’s to lose, and he may be poised to do just that.
Two fresh polls suggest Rick Santorum, fuelled by a trifecta of wins in Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota, has surpassed Mr. Romney in Michigan, raising the spectre of a humiliating defeat on his home turf in the upcoming Feb. 28th primary.
The Republican front-runner was born in Detroit, raised in one of its affluent suburbs, Bloomfield Hills, and attended Cranbrook Academy, an elite prep school. His father, George Romney, built his fortune as president of American Motors in the fifties and went on to serve as governor, presiding over the state with such esteem that even after he imposed Michigan’s first income tax, he emerged more popular than ever. Mr. Romney himself handily won the Michigan primaries in 2008 trouncing his chief rival, John McCain, by an easy nine points.
The new numbers, however, suggest Mr. Romney will face a much tougher battle this time around. Michigan was already in recession when the rest of the country plunged into a downturn. Waves of layoffs swelled the ranks of the unemployed and record foreclosures transformed some sections of Detroit into ghost towns.
Enter Mr. Romney. Viewed in a certain light, the candidate’s Michigan roots, business background and reputation as a turnaround artist could have resonated in this woe-begotten state. Instead, he is entering the race as the underdog, his privilege and inability to connect proving a curse, even in his home state. A controversial op-ed piece he wrote four years ago, in which he advocated letting the auto industry go bankrupt, likely won’t endear him to locals with long memories.
If the polls’ predictions play out in the Michigan primary, it would suggest Mr. Santorum has out-strategized Mr. Romney by stressing his blue-collar roots and hitting all the right notes in working-class states. It also implies Mr. Romney’s ties to Michigan are perhaps too stale to matter (his father left office in 1969, when Richard Nixon was president), or that Mr. Romney’s vaunted Michigan connections simply matter to the wrong people.
“These are the kinds of ties that matter to the elites. Mr. Romney has already won the establishment. Those ties matter less to the rank and file, and that’s where he continues to have trouble,” said Michael Heaney, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan.
An American Research Group poll of likely Republican voters has Mr. Santorum ahead of Mr. Romney 33 per cent to 27 per cent. (Newt Gingrich garnered 21 per cent and Ron Paul 12 per cent.) Another poll, by Public Policy Polling, paints an even grimmer picture for Mr. Romney, giving Mr. Santorum a 15-percentage-point lead-. “Rick Santorum has all the momentum in Michigan right now,” Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling , said in a statement. “But it’s important to note that more than 50 per cent of voters say they could change their minds in the next two weeks.”
For the Republican hopefuls, Michigan is nowhere near as significant as the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary. Yet the vote in Mr. Romney’s home state could prove to be a pivotal moment for Mr. Santorum if he wins. He is already draining support from a flailing Mr. Gingrich, something that could further his chances of beating Mr. Romney in Michigan.
The same poll that gave Mr. Santorum the yawning 15-percentage-point lead over his rival found only 26 per cent of primary voters actually consider Mr. Romney to be a Michigan native. A full 62 per cent do not.
Other analysts blame Mr. Romney’s deficit in Michigan on a controversial stand he took at the height of the financial crisis in 2008.
The candidate wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times entitled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” arguing against a Congressional bailout for America’s big three auto-makers that was ultimately defeated in the Senate.
“Detroit needs a turnaround, not a check,” he wrote. He believed filing for bankruptcy would force the car companies to make tough business decisions that would give rise to a more robust auto industry in the long run.
“Detroit will need to drastically restructure itself. … A managed bankruptcy may be the only path to the fundamental restructuring the industry needs,” he wrote.
When a newly elected Barack Obama came through with a bailout, Michigan voters were pleased. Some never forgave Mr. Romney for his betrayal, analysts say.
Mr. Santorum’s campaign, for its part, said Monday that beating Mr. Romney in Michigan would profoundly change the race, whittling it down to two by rendering Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Paul irrelevant.
“If we can get it to a two-person race, I feel very confident that we will be the nominee,” John Brabender, one of Mr. Santorum’s strategists, told Politico on Monday.
But even if that’s true, yet another poll shows Mr. Romney remains the most popular Republican in hypothetical match-ups against Mr. Obama. New numbers from Rasmussen show Mr. Obama would lead Mr. Romney 48 per cent to 42 per cent in a showdown. But against Mr. Santorum, Mr. Obama would win 49 per cent to 41 per cent.
Either way, the Republicans lose.