Michigan’s Primary Party Crashers: Democrats Crossing Over to Thwart Romney

Democratic voters who resent Romney for his auto-industry bailout opposition could help deliver Michigan to Santorum, says Ben Jacobs.

The key demographic in today’s Michigan Republican primary may be Democrats. Not conservative Democrats, not Reagan Democrats, or any other type of crossover Democrats. Just plain, old-fashioned, bleeding-heart liberal Democrats.

They are the voters who might carry Rick Santorum to victory in the Wolverine State. He might gain their support not because of newfound stomach discomfort with John F. Kennedy’s rhetoric or a sudden revulsion toward contraception. Instead, they’ll support Santorum for a far simpler reason—to spite Mitt Romney.

The conventional wisdom is that Romney is a stronger general-election candidate against President Obama than Santorum, and that a win for Santorum in Michigan, Romney’s native state, eventually would redound to the benefit of Obama’s reelection campaign. But Michigan Democrats’ animus toward Romney is not just tactical. There also is a strong streak of lingering resentment over Romney’s refusal to support the 2008 auto-industry bailout. These two factors combined could lead to a sufficient increase in turnout to push Santorum over the top in the statewide vote tally.

Michigan has a long history of voters mischievously crossing over in the state’s open primaries—to spite both parties. This had an impact in races such as the 2000 GOP presidential primary, when many Democrats voted for John McCain over George W. Bush to give a black eye to incumbent Gov. John Engler, who was a prominent Bush endorser. It is a normal and accepted quirk in the state’s political culture for both parties. As GOP operative Jake Davison told The Daily Beast, “In a similar situation, Republicans would be just as eager to cross over.”

The Democrats-for-Santorum push was started by such mischief-makers as Democratic consultant Joe DiSano, who discussed it in a Huffington Post article, as well as in a campaign of robo-calls and mass emails to selected Democrats.

While DiSano has no illusions that hordes of Democrats will turn out for Santorum, and that it’s only “playing around at the margins,” he does think his efforts could be crucial. He has a goal of getting a mere 12,000 Democrats to cross over, and he thinks “Romney is so weak” that this “small effort” could determine the statewide winner. Tom Kerr, another Democratic operative in the state, has even heard rumblings that the United Auto Workers union may be encouraging its members to come out for Santorum, motivated by lasting animosity toward Romney for his vocal stand against saving the auto industry three years ago. As Jill Alper, a leading Democratic consultant in the state, cautioned, however, “This isn’t a vast left-wing conspiracy” and almost certainly won’t have a “sweeping impact.”

The Santorum campaign, interestingly, is itself now joining in the effort, sending out a robocall to encourage Michigan Democrats to cross over on his behalf to punish Romney for his opposition to aiding the auto industry. It’s not necessarily a dirty trick for a candidate who claims his strength is his appeal to blue-collar Democrats in a general election and explicitly acknowledges that it’s paid for by the Santorum campaign. But it’s not the cleanest campaign tactic either.

There may be more sinister campaign tactics afoot, however. DiSano said he fears that Ron Paul is organizing in inner-city Detroit to suck potential crossover votes away from Santorum. In his words, Paul is “a spoiler to a spoiler.” In fact, the libertarian Texas congressman appeared on Sunday in a predominantly African-American inner-city Baptist church—not exactly the typical venue for candidates in Republican primaries. But then again, Paul is not exactly the usual Republican candidate either.

The 2008 Michigan GOP primary had almost 870,000 voters turn out and, with no Democratic primary happening, turnout is likely only to go up. With that many voters showing up at the polls, rogue Democrats are likely to be only a sliver of the electorate. But with statewide polls showing a dead heat between Romney and Santorum, even the slightest shift at the margins could determine who wins.

If Santorum manages to eke out a victory, the likely spin from the Romney camp will be that it was the result of this crossover voting. Perhaps. But in elections, as in life, it’s all about showing up. And, if the former Massachusetts governor’s campaign doesn’t get enough of its voters to turn out today, the fault will not be with Democratic dirty tricks but the campaign itself.