Mitt Romney looked more relieved than victorious on the stage in Michigan Tuesday night.
Yes, Romney won but this was a home game for him and he barely survived. To use a basketball analogy, it’s like the Lakers beating the Washington Wizards on their home court in Los Angeles by a three pointer at the buzzer. Sure it’s a victory but not very impressive at all (Let me apologize for comparing Santorum to the Wizards. No one should have that misfortune).
It should be noted that Romney only won a couple more delegates than Santorum so it was nearly an even split as it relates to the all-important delegate race.
So now the question for the Romney campaign is can they win the important Rust Belt state of Ohio on Super Tuesday? Have you checked the polls? It doesn’t look great for him there (Maybe he can sell his Cadillac cars before the polls open next week?).
As a matter of fact, out of the ten states that will be voting, Santorum has a decent shot at winning Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, North Dakota, and Idaho (potentially Georgia, too, if Gingrich stumbles). Romney should win Virginia, Vermont, and Massachusetts. (As for Alaska, not much polling has been done up there. Is it too cold?)
The point here is that in one week’s time we could have a much different narrative. If the narrative Tuesday night is how Romney survived Michigan, the storyline after March 6 could be how Santorum thrived on Super Tuesday. This race has had more twists and turns than an episode of Days of Our Lives.
Santorum’s campaign will see Michigan as a moral victory just based on the fact that they forced Romney to compete hard and spend millions of dollars in a state where he grew up and where his father was governor.
But there is a big problem for Santorum. How exactly does he get over the hurdle of convincing voters that he’s the guy that can beat Obama? Look at the exit poll numbers from Michigan. The most important factor for voters was who can beat the president. Romney won 61 percent of those people (Santorum just 24 percent). That’s a problem any way you slice it. Santorum did win among people who are looking for a true conservative with strong moral character but those attributes were further down the list for voters.
Another challenge for Santorum is whether or not he can break the stereotype of the social conservative candidate? He’s going to have to figure out a way to weave his faith message into his campaign narrative without getting sidetracked on social issues. If reporters start asking him about them, he’s going to have to find his pivot foot and use it.
Waxing poetic and engaging on every social issue may be admirable and authentic but it’s politically stupid. It’s one thing to give a 20 second answer on a social issue but it’s quite another to go on a two-minute rift on a cause you feel so passionately about it. Can he let it go without abandoning his overriding principle of faith, family, and societal change? It’s an open question and an important one.
Let’s also make one other point perfectly clear. Organization, money and being seen as the frontrunner definitely matter. All three of those characteristics helped Romney out tremendously in Michigan. Why? First of all, Romney had a great ground game so as to capitalize on early voting in the state. Many folks voted for Romney BEFORE Santorum really started making a serious move this month.
Plus, the exit polls show that 32 percent of people actually made up their mind in 2011! Of those, 50 percent went to Romney and just 17 percent to Santorum. It shows that Romney defining himself as the frontrunner early helped him. Romney closed the deal with many voters even before coming to Michigan.
So is Romney the frontrunner? Of course. Is he the presumed nominee? It looks that way. But we also know that he hasn’t cemented anything yet and you get the distinct impression that this wildly unpredictable Republican race for president has a couple more crazy turns left.
Other Exit Poll Stats:
White evangelical vote:
- Made up 39% of the electorate in Michigan.
- 50% went for Santorum: 35% for Romney
Tea Party Vote:
- Santorum wins 46% to 36% over Romney among strong supporters of the movement.
- However it was a 41% tie with overall supporters of the movement.