The widely-accepted media narrative concerning Mitt Romney’s victory in Tuesday’s Michigan primary suggests that his campaign narrowly escaped a fatal disaster while the stumbling, staggering candidate once again demonstrated his dismal inability to connect with the conservative base of his party.
According to this conventional wisdom, the insurgent populist Rick Santorum rightly told his cheering supporters in Grand Rapids that he had achieved “a great night” by nearly defeating the well-financed but painfully vulnerable frontrunner in his home state. Some dismissive pundits even suggested that the close race in the Wolverine State actually provided new momentum to Righteous Rick, and did dire damage to the Mitt Machine, as they both moved on to 10 climactic battlegrounds for next week’s big Super Tuesday showdown. A typical headline on the NBC website sneered at “Romney’s Ugly Win in Michigan.”
Unfortunately for Senator Santorum, but much to the relief of Republican loyalists who feel increasingly weary and wary regarding the ongoing intraparty squabbles, nearly all of this standard account is wrong—and based on sloppy analysis, refusal to recognize countervailing evidence, and instinctive dislike of Mitt Romney by many in the media.
Most reporters look upon Republicans in general as alien life forms from an exotic, primitive culture, but at least Santorum and Gingrich can be entertainingly outrageous, while Ron Paul counts as cantankerous and quirky.
Romney, on the other hand, strikes the prestige press as dull, plastic, aloof, spoiled, insincere, inaccessible, and incomprehensibly committed to a religious faith widely derided as benighted and bizarre. No wonder that the leading commentators for major print and broadcast outlets refused to recognize the sweep and significance of Mitt’s big wins in Michigan—and the unheralded primary in Arizona, where he trounced Santorum by nearly 2 to 1.
In fact, in Michigan alone Romney received more than double the votes Santorum racked up in a combined total of all three of the low turnout contests of February 7th (Missouri, Colorado and Minnesota), where the former Pennsylvania senator purportedly turned the tide and seized the status of frontrunner.
Descriptions of Romney’s “ugly win” also ignored the potent role of Democrats who, in significant numbers (of more than 90,000) crossed over to vote for Santorum in the Michigan GOP primary. Of course, some small number of these participants may have been erstwhile, blue-collar “Reagan Democrats” sincerely attracted by Santorum’s strong stand on social issues and special support for manufacturing industries.
Evidence suggests, however, that most Democrats who backed him on Tuesday counted as mischief makers—heeding the calls by leading Michigan liberals (including filmmaker Michael Moore) to participate in “Operation Hilarity” by sticking the Republicans with the weakest possible candidate. Others may have responded to robocalls openly financed by the Santorum campaign, asking Democratic loyalists and union households to support the former senator in order to punish Romney for his opposition to the auto bailouts (which Santorum also opposed, by the way) and assuring them they could still vote for Obama in the general election.
In any event, the exit polls sponsored jointly by all leading media outlets showed 9 percent of all voters in Tuesday’s GOP primary identified themselves as Democrats, and they preferred Santorum over Romney 53 to 18 percent. Among those describing themselves as “very liberal” or “somewhat liberal” (a surprising 13 percent of primary-day participants), Santorum also won handily (38 to 23 percent), despite his strident insistence that he represents the “true conservative” in the race.
Subtracting the dubious Democratic votes from the totals both candidates actually received, Romney would have doubled his margin of victory—to a far more decisive 6.3 percent. Among self-described Republicans in the exit polls, Mitt did beat Rick by a comfortable 11 points—a strong indication that he didn’t count as the Michigan candidate with difficulty winning the party base. In Arizona, those who identified themselves as Republicans chose Romney over Santorum by a landslide margin of 22 percent, while Mitt simultaneously swept self-proclaimed conservatives by 17 points.
Democrats in the Grand Canyon State represented only 2 percent of primary participants, and therefore played no significant role in the GOP outcome.
Meanwhile, the twin primary wins for Romney also should bury the stupid claim that he can’t compete among Tea Party Republicans. In Arizona, 60 percent of primary voters said they “support the Tea Party movement” and Romney swept those votes, 42 to 33 percent. In Michigan, only 52 percent described themselves as Tea Party supporters, and they split their votes almost evenly (42 percent for Romney, 41 percent for Santorum).
Interestingly enough, only the small minority who said they “strongly oppose” the Tea Party movement (just 12 percent in Michigan) went lopsidedly for Santorum—45 to 29 percent—perhaps another indication of the Democratic intrusion into the primary process. The contention that Romney fails to connect with Tea Party partisans who instinctively flock to Santorum may count as conventional wisdom, but it’s also a confounded lie.
And speaking of lies (or at least mistakes), there’s the persistent claim that Romney’s enormous wealth and fervent Mormon faith make it impossible for him to appeal to the blue-collar, culturally-conservative Catholic and Evangelical voters who will constitute the prime target for any Republican candidate hoping to unseat Obama. In Arizona, Romney either won or tied with every measured religious group – crushing the devout altar boy Santorum among Catholics (47 to 33), while earning a squeaker win among his Mormon co-religionists (14 percent of the Arizona electorate) by a margin of 96 to 1 percent (no, that’s not a typo or exaggeration). Romney also swept every income group in Arizona, without exception—including those earning less than $50,000 (classic working-class conservatives), who backed Millionaire Mitt by 43 to 29 percent.
In the much closer Michigan primary, Romney still easily won Catholics (44 to 37 percent) and managed to find significant support among “white Evangelical/born-again” voters, even while losing that group (39 percent of the primary electorate) to Santorum by 51 to 35 percent. With all the talk of Romney’s privileged upbringing and personal wealth making him unappealing to struggling, economically disadvantaged Americans, the Mandarin from Massachusetts still managed to tie Santorum (37 to 39 percent) among Michigan voters with reported income below $30,000 a year.
Finally, the punditocracy likes to insist that the attitude toward a Romney nomination among the Republican rank and file counts as resignation, at best, but hardly amounts to an enthusiastic embrace.
The Romney victory in Michigan clearly contradicts that storyline, where the 45 percent of voters who said they “strongly favored” one candidate preferred Romney over Santorum by 14 points, while the 16 percent of Michiganders who claimed they supported their guy only because they “disliked others” went for Santorum by more than two to one—51 to 22 percent. In other words, Romney voters expressed genuine enthusiasm for their champion, while the bulk of those who chose “the lesser evil” settled (with scant passion) on Righteous Rick.
None of this makes more Romney victories a sure thing on Super Tuesday, let alone cementing his claim to the Republican nomination. But an honest analysis of Mitt’s Michigan and Arizona wins makes them look far more impressive and significant than most media analysis allows. If nothing else, commentators ought to acknowledge the one-sided haul of delegates on February 28th: in the two contested states, Romney won at least 44 delegates to the Tampa convention, while Santorum claimed at most 15.
In the broader context of the unfolding battle to secure a victory in the nomination fight and to beat Obama in November, Mitt Romney’s decisive success in the state of his birth hardly counts as ugly. Media distortion of the results and the stubborn bias against him actually qualify as far uglier.