Michigan for Mitt: A Slim Victory

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Getty Images

Maybe those trees were the right height after all.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney made good on his plan to be the prodigal son come home in triumph on Tuesday night, winning the Michigan primary and besting former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum with a victory that was close but convincing.


"We didn't win by a lot, but we won by enough. And that's all that counts," Romney told supporters late Tuesday in Novi, Mich., about 30 miles from Detroit.

Romney won by 3 percentage points, 41 percent to 38 percent, a slim margin of victory that may have been different if not for Democrats who voted in the state's open primary — Democrats encouraged to vote for Santorum in a series of so-called robocalls bankrolled by Santorum's super PAC supporters. (Update: As of Wednesday evening a number of news outlets, including NBC News, were reporting that even though Romney won the popular vote, he and Santorum would split the number of Michigan delegates, 15-15. However, Thursday it was revealed that delegates would be split 16-14 in favor of Romney.)

About 9 percent of primary-goers Tuesday identified themselves as Democrats, according to Washington Post exit polls, and more than half of those cast their ballots for Santorum.

Romney's victory may not completely rebuild the scaffold of inevitability his campaign has been constructing since his campaign began. But the win in Michigan, where Romney was born in 1947, fortifies a presidential bid recently beset by gaffes of campaign optics and by a late Santorum challenge.

Now the challenge for Romney is to go beyond the expected cohorts of his support — something that may prove problematic as the campaign rolls into Super Tuesday next week.

In a nutshell, Romney did well where he should have done well. His support among higher-income Michigan residents was understandably strong, coming as it did among the people who share Romney's wealth and his concerns for the deficit and the wider economy.


Sandhya Somashekhar and Nia-Malika Henderson, reporting late Tuesday in the Washington Post and sampling from voter exit polls, found that Romney "performed well among declared Republicans, voters with incomes above $100,000 a year, those whose top concerns were the federal deficit and the economy, and those keen on beating President Obama in the fall, according to preliminary exit polls in the state.

Romney also didn't bring the message with the blue-collar voters of Wayne County, home to Detroit and the U.S. automotive industry — the same industry that Romney seemed to abandon in a November 2008 New York Times op-ed that called for Motor City to face the ignominy of bankruptcy.


Flush with victory, Romney offered a laundry list of pledges to the supporters in Novi: repeal of the alternative minimum tax; "an across-the-board, 20 percent [tax] rate cut for every American"; a promise to make the R&D tax credit permanent; and "I'm gonna end the repatriation tax … there's a lot of money offshore that ought to come back to America."

Never mind the inconvenient fact that some of that offshore money is apparently Romney's own. The candidate came under fire late last month for parking millions of dollars in accounts in the Cayman Islands, Ireland and Luxembourg. Tuesday night, Romney doubled down on previous pledges to shrink the federal government and put Americans back to work.


"I'm going to deliver on more jobs, less debt, smaller government," Romney said.

The Santorum campaign faces a need to retool its message, and maybe shake up the messenger. In previous primary contests, Santorum prevailed with an accessible, direct strategy of retail politics delivered by a candidate praised for connecting with voters in a personal way.


Buoyed by wins in the Iowa caucuses, and a sweep of the Colorado and Missouri caucuses and the Minnesota primary, Santorum threw caution to the wind in recent weeks, honing an attack-dog strategy that alienated some voters and confused others. The easygoing retail style of Santorum that prevailed in January gave way recently to arch, mean-spirited politics. Santorum the scold called President Obama a "snob" for proposing that Americans seek to advance their horizons with pursuit of higher education.

Santorum may have gone a bridge too far when he said last week that a 1960 speech by John F. Kennedy promising to support the separation of church and state made him want to "throw up." The candidate has since expressed regrets for the comments.


The campaign now moves to Super Tuesday, with its 10-state bumper crop of more than 400 delegates up for grabs in seven primaries and three caucuses.

Michael E. Ross is a regular contributor to The Root and the author of American Bandwidth, on the Obama campaign and presidency. He blogs on politics and national affairs at Short Sharp Shock.


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