international analysis and commentary

After the Michigan primary: does it really matter?

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Despite his robotic demeanor and elitist reserve, spare a kind thought this morning for Mitt Romney. For unlike that of his many challengers, his paint-by-numbers campaign has done nothing really wrong. Unlike Herman Cain, he has lead an exemplary personal life, giving the Democratic attack machine nothing to work with. Unlike Governor Rick Perry of Texas, he can get through an hour-long debate and keep sounding like a capable grown up. He seems – even at his worst moments – far less angry than his principal challengers, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. (In fact, his best and most human moment of the whole campaign may have been when he said he was not prepared “to set his hair on fire” to court conservative activists.) The secret tragedy for Romney is that on paper he works just fine as a presidential candidate… but life is not lived on paper.

Rather like the doomed Al Gore, Governor Romney reminds one of the high school class valedictorian: smart, capable, seemingly perfect, yet secretly despised. Michigan should have been a slam-dunk for Romney. His late father George was a highly respected governor there, and an extremely successful auto executive before that (equally importantly in a state where the car is still king). This is where Romney grew up; it is a state where he beat John McCain handily just four years ago. As ever, Romney also held a huge advantage over his rivals in terms of money and organization, outspending the lot of them by a factor of five to one. And yet, somehow, despite all these objective advantages, Romney eked out a win by a surprisingly slim margin. Indeed, just a week ago, he had found himself down in Michigan polls to Rick Santorum by as much as nine points.

In the end, objective factors carried the day: money, organization, and weary familiarity made up the gap. Governor Romney staved off disaster by beating Santorum 41-38% in Michigan, and winning by a far heftier 20 points in Arizona as well. He remains the frontrunner, as his campaign machine has overcome a decided lack of enthusiasm about the man. But the problem remains.

Why can’t Romney clinch the deal? His campaign’s enthusiasm problem springs from three main sources. First (unlike Santorum and Gingrich but very like Barack Obama) he has real difficulty connecting with the increasingly blue-collar, lower-middle class base of the Republican Party. These Reagan Democrats, who deserted the Democratic Party over social and economic issues in the 1980s, are emblematic of the imperiled American middle class. Romney may understand their fears about globalization and what it has done to them on an intellectual level, but it is beyond his human capability (based on both his personal history and character) to emotionally connect with the anger they feel about the rapidly changing world we live in.

Second, all of Romney’s many challengers have come at him from the right. They have found room to maneuver as the deep suspicion of the Republican base is that Romney is just feigning conservative credentials to win the nomination, and will then veer back toward his natural home in the ideological center in order to win the election – quickly forgetting the very people who propelled him to the nomination. His objective record as the moderate governor of left-wing Massachusetts (to understand conservative feelings about the place, substitute “Sodom and Gomorrah” every time you read “Massachusetts” in print), where his signature issue was designing a healthcare reform package that looks suspiciously like the hated Obamacare, certainly lends some credence to this fear.

But how is Romney supposed to win the general election if he doesn’t pivot back to the center? Modern-day American presidential elections can be thought of simply: despite not always loving their nominee, 90% or more of both parties’ members will not jump ship in the general election; it is the one-third of the country who are independents (generally positioned in the center, and more worried than most about economic issues) who actually decide things. Thus, if the Democratic Party drifts too far to the left (as it did under both George McGovern in 1972 and Walter Mondale in 1984) or the GOP moves too far to the right (think Goldwater in 1964) they are doomed.

Of course, Romney has to pivot back to the center. But the Tea Party and the evangelical right have shown throughout this ugly primary contest that they are more concerned with ideological purity than with winning. This state of affairs has presented the Romney campaign with a fiendish choice: if they don’t move rightwards they may lose the nomination, but if they move too far rightwards they will lose the general election.

This ideational reality explains why independents – so rightfully skeptical of Obama’s feckless spending sprees – are nevertheless heading for the Republican exits. In early January 2012, only 40% of independents supported the president; by the end of February 2012 this number had risen dramatically to 51% (with Romney only getting 42% of their support). The presumptive nominee, moving rightwards to save his skin, is at the same time alienating the very independent voters who, alone, can bring him victory in the fall.

Romney’s final problem is not of his making; it is rather the result of the catastrophic decision made by the Republican elite. Throughout most of modern presidential history, the Democrats have had more states in play that were decided by proportional means (with candidates splitting delegates), while the Republicans have been more comfortable with a winner-takes-all system (where the candidate with the most votes in any given state receives all the delegates). As a result, Democrats have often fought lengthy and bloody battles on the path to the nomination (think LBJ-McCarthy-RFK-Humphrey in 1968 and Carter-Kennedy in 1980), while Republicans have generally quickly coalesced around their man. Overall, this process has served the GOP very well.

However, stung by their drubbing to Obama in 2008, the Republican grandees changed their minds and adopted the proportional system in most cases for 2012. Feeling they had settled on a weak John McCain far too early, and aware that the riveting Hillary-Obama race had merely inspired an ever-increasing upsurge in enthusiasm for the Democratic Party in general, the Republicans made a colossal error this time around. On its own, it may well cost them any hope of winning the general election.

Somehow, the Republicans forgot that this time around the Democrats have as their leader a sitting president, facing no primary challenge. There has been no dose of negativity of any kind directed at their man. In comparison, the Republicans have had a food fight, with candidates regularly smearing their fellow GOP opponents as unfit to run a gas station. So, despite Romney’s “victory” in Michigan, Santorum will pick up almost as many delegates as he does. The proportionality system means there is simply no incentive (as long as enough money comes in the door) for any of the four Republicans left standing to leave the race: therefore, expect the food fight to continue. Republican negatives are bound to go ever upwards, and independents will duly desert Romney (who will limp to victory in the end) in droves.

Poor Mitt Romney; eventually he will emerge from the clown car. But, by then, the presidential race will be all but over. Michigan changes nothing.