So Mitt Romney won Michigan. A win is a win. Certainly a loss would have been a complete disaster for him. Romney avoided that and remains the presumptive nominee. But he still had a rough week, during which he should have learned three things: first, that he has a hell of a lot of work to do as a candidate; second, that he basically lost Michigan to Barack Obama this week; and third, that he is going to face, still, a big fight in Ohio on March 6. Far from Michigan settling things, it has merely set up the next walk over the coals for the candidate no one really wants.
Romney pulled off the miracle of winning while having one of the worst weeks a major candidate has ever had. He made so many errors in the last few days—the NASCAR owners “joke,” the jab at those poor poncho-wearers, the twice-bruited praise for the height of his home state’s trees—that the combination of them would have killed him in any state but the one in which he grew up. Can he really stop saying things like that? It seems very doubtful. “I am who I am,” he said Tuesday, in announcing that he would not set his hair on fire to placate the right-wing base and secure the nomination.
He’s half-right, in that he definitely is who he is. But while he meant that as saying that he was someone who won’t bend to popular convention, what most people have seen is a guy who has all but set his hair on fire already. At the very least he’s doused it with gasoline, with imaginary allegations about Barack Obama apologizing for America and whatnot. Romney’s problem is not that he has tastefully refrained from saying ugly things about the president; rather, it’s that he tried to say those things, but he couldn’t say them in the right way. He was lucky that his chief opponent, Rick Santorum, was worse than he was, with remarks about wanting to throw up at the words of one of the most popular presidents of recent times.
Obama lost the Ohio primary in 2008, but he lost it to a serious person. Romney is in danger of losing it to a man who will never be president. That’s a very different situation.
Romney was fortunate to hold on and win Michigan. But he won it in counties, Oakland and Macomb and especially Wayne, where Detroit is, where he’s going to be outvoted something like 58-42 by Obama this fall, or maybe by 55 to 45 at best. So this “victory” isn’t much of a win. A great primary-season triumph is one that carries through to November. When Obama won Iowa in 2008, or Wisconsin, it felt like a presaging of November, like the candidate was riding a tailwind. This feels nothing like that. Romney is not going to win Michigan this fall, barring some fantastical circumstance. Obama was on the right side of the automaker loan, will not be massively outspent, and will not make anything remotely like the weird and offensive gaffes Santorum made in the last few days.
Finally, Romney still has battles ahead of him. Coming into tonight, he was pretty far behind Santorum in the key state of Ohio. True, Obama lost Ohio badly in the primary to Hillary Clinton, and he went on to win the state in the fall, so a primary loss wouldn’t mean that Romney couldn’t win in November. But at least Obama lost Ohio to a truly serious person. Romney is still in danger of losing it to a guy who can’t remotely be imagined as president of the United States. That’s a very different situation. Another three-point win against a candidate as extreme as Santorum while losing to another candidate as extreme as Gingrich in Georgia, which seems likely, just won’t make the questions go away.
He had to win, and he did win. He avoided a meltdown in the Republican Party, and the possible end of his own career. But he gave the mediocre and passionless speech of a man who couldn’t wait to catch the last plane out of the state. And he will return to the campaign trail with Republican professionals nervously wondering: What awkward thing is he going to say this week? And can he win Ohio? What happens to us if he can’t? And somewhere in there, namely Friday, the January jobs report—expected according to early accounts to show at least another 170,000 or so private-sector jobs gained, and the jobless rate maybe dropping again—is going to come out, and if it follows expectations, it will diminish his rationale that much more. Tuesday’s results certainly didn’t make those questions go away.