Michigan Post Mortem

While Mitt Romney’s victory last night in Michigan was hardly a shock in the way Hillary Clinton’s “comeback” in New Hampshire was, his nine point victory margin in a race that was too close to call exceeded expectations and should certainly give him a boost ahead of Super Tuesday.

How Romney Won

Romney was born and raised in Michigan and his father was the state’s governor; that was, however, many moons ago. John McCain won the state handily in 2000, albeit against a Texan running on a social conservative platform.

CNN’s Alexander Mooney cites three factors: the economy, evangelicals, and home field advantage.

Why Mitt Romney Won Michigan A majority of Michigan voters named the economy as the most pressing issue — and those voters overwhelming chose the former Massachusetts governor and one-time successful businessman: 41 percent of them went for Romney, compared to 29 percent who went for McCain.

Romney was also aided by winning a strong share of evangelical voters. As predicted, evangelical turnout was up this cycle — they constituted 38 percent of GOP primary voters. Mike Huckabee was banking on winning this bloc as overwhelmingly as he had in Iowa, but the exit polls indicate that he and Romney were essentially tied among those voters, with Romney getting the votes of 33 percent to Huckabee’s 31 percent.

Finally, Romney’s local ties to Michigan — he was born there, and his father served as the state’s governor — may have put him over the top: 41 percent of Republican primary voters said Romney’s connection to Michigan was an important factor in their decision on who to support.

How McCain Lost:

When McCain was running his losing insurgent campaign in 2000, he picked off several states, including Michigan, on the strength of Democrats crossing over after Al Gore wrapped up his contest with Bill Bradley much earlier than anyone thought. In the particular case of Michigan, there was also a backlash against Governor John Engler. This year, the Democrats mostly stayed home — or voted in their own primary.

Why John McCain Lost Michigan Despite urging from some activists like Daily Kos’ Markos Moulitsas that Michigan Democrats vote for Mitt Romney over John McCain, CNN exit polling indicates the Arizona Republican won the liberal vote.

McCain captured 41 percent of Democrats who voted in the Republican primary, 10 points more than Romney. Mike Huckabee meanwhile, only captured 14 percent of Democrats.

Though the Democratic primary race was rendered essentially meaningless after party sanctions, few Democrats decided to vote in the Republican primary — according to the exit polling, Democrats only constituted 7 percent of the vote in that contest.

Similarly, self-described independents turned out in low numbers, too: “About one in four Republican primary voters said they were independents — a number lower than in the 2000 Michigan primary, when McCain rode their support to an upset win over Bush.”

What It Means

For starters, this keeps hope alive for Romney and his supporters.

The stakes were highest for Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who told Michigan voters that from the White House, he could help rebuild the ailing domestic auto industry. After disappointing losses the last two weeks in Iowa and New Hampshire, analysts said his candidacy would be severely wounded by a loss in a third state where he had invested heavily.

“You’ve got to give the guy a ton of credit for winning a state he had to pull through,” said Washington-based Republican pollster Neil Newhouse.

Despite Michigan’s having more delegates at stake than Iowa and New Hampshire combined, it got relatively little attention. The media has gotten so used to the Iowa-New Hampshire-South Carolina script that the other early states (like Wyoming, where Romney won a caucus largely unopposed) get short shrift.

Romney was, however, in a no-win situation. If he’d lost, the story would have been three straight losses in states where he’d spent heavily and campaigned hard. Further, the “he couldn’t win his boyhood home” meme would have been very damaging. Winning staved that off but McCain and others can fall back on the “Well, he was supposed to win” excuse to great sympathy from the commentariat.

Still, at the very least, McCain is deprived of momentum. Taking New Hampshire and Michigan in succession would have been quite helpful in South Carolina. Plus, the fact that he was beaten by a fairly wide margin among actual Republicans (that is, subtracting the independents and Democrats) raises questions.

For Huckabee, the loss is mostly irrelevant. Third is quite respectable and does him no harm. The caveat, though, is that Romney did about as well as he did among evangelicals, his supposed base. Whether this is a sign of things to come or merely an indication that, with Huckabee given no chance to win, evangelicals chose between the two viable candidates is hard to say.

Huckabee remains the favorite to take South Carolina with McCain seemingly the only other candidate with a realistic shot. A McCain win would give him a huge boost going into the Super Tuesday stretch; a loss, though, would remove the luster from the New Hampshire win and raise serious doubts about his ability to win.

Rudy Giuliani is the wild card, having essentially sat out the race until now, campaigning under the radar in Florida and other large states quickly coming into view. It’s a strategy that’s never been successful before — nobody has won either party’s nomination in the primary era without winning either Iowa or New Hampshire — but one that’s untested in a front loaded system.

Ron Paul’s fourth place showing, albeit in the single digits, will no doubt be cited as proof he’s coming on strong. He isn’t.

Regardless, it certainly looks like a four man race for the nomination at this point. Should Fred Thompson somehow come from nowhere to win South Carolina, it’ll be five.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. R. Alex says:

    This is huge for Mike Huckabee. The fact that he got third doesn’t help or hurt him, but Romney’s victory keeps this race going, which is what Huckabee really needed. Had McCain won, not only would Romney have been knocked out but you would have seen a lot more coalescing around McCain and the momentum could have made this race over.

    I don’t believe that a Romney win is likely at all, but this makes a Huckabee victory a lot more likely, in my view.

  2. yetanotherjohn says:

    So lets see. We have Thompson win SC and Rudy win FLA and we end up with Huckabee, McCain, Romney, Thompson and Rudy all having their turn in the sun.

    I was wrong about McCain and Michigan because I was wrong about the independents and democrats coming out to vote. But I am starting to re-think my views on the contested convention. If McCain had won MI, I could see him running the table (or close enough to it) to win the nomination. Still possible, but harder for him.

    2008 – Ain’t politics great

  3. Richard Gardner says:

    Despite Michigan’s having more delegates at stake than Iowa and New Hampshire combined.

    Normally that would be almost true, but since MI advanced the date of its primary breaking Party rules on both sides, the Democrats removed all MI delegates, and the Republicans removed half, so MI only gets 30 R delegates, fewer than IA.

    Looking at the Republican total delegates in the early primaries (slightly different from the delegates at-stake, with each state making its own rules, some winner take all, some proportional, some not at-stake state Party leaders):

  4. IA: 41
  5. NH: 24
  6. MI: 61 – but cut in half to 30
  7. NV: 34
  8. SC: 46
  9. FL: 113 – but cut in half to 57
  10. Source: RCP