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Republican rollercoaster ride


This rollercoaster of a Republican primary season continued on its winding path Tuesday night. Mitt Romney pulled off two victories (in Arizona and Michigan) and managed to end what had been an otherwise tough February for him (he lost primaries in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri to Rick Santorum and had been falling in national polls) on a high note.

As the pack of GOP presidential hopefuls prepares for the crucial battle of Super Tuesday – when ten states will vote on the same day – exit polls from Michigan and Arizona point once again to a major faultline splitting the Republican base in two. On one side, moderate, well-educated, high-income voters who want to nominate a candidate that can beat President Barack Obama in November and who don’t worry so much about social issues. Such voters clearly favor Romney. On the other side, social conservatives and evangelical Christians, as well as working class Republicans, who keep looking for an alternative to the former governor of Massachusetts. Lately, such voters have been betting on Santorum.

Arizona turned out to be a walk in the park for Romney (he won 47.3% of the votes cast, against Santorum’s 26.6%). He was able to count on important endorsements (including Governor Jan Brewer and Senator John McCain), friendly constituencies (in particular the state’s substantial Mormon minority, who typically votes in higher numbers than other conservative groups) and the fact that his rivals barely campaigned there. Arizona is a winner-take-all state, so Romney banked its 29 delegates, increasing his lead in the overall count.

Michigan, however, was a completely different story. Born in the state, the son of a popular former governor and auto executive, Romney had long been considered a clear favorite here. Instead, he only managed to eke out a narrow last minute win (with 41.1% of the votes to Santorum’s 37.9%.) He owes it partially to his highly organized and disciplined campaign machine, which kept churning even while the candidate was stumbling. And to Santorum. In the last few days, a surging Santorum imprudently chose to focus his campaign on controversial social issues (such as contraception) departing from the blue-collar message that had been so successful in this working class state. Santorum also fumbled while picking unwise battles with the Democrats. He attacked President Obama for encouraging all Americans to get some higher education: “President Obama said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob… He wants to remake you in his image,” he said. He even criticized former president – and first Catholic ever in the White House – John Fitzgerald Kennedy over his views on the separation of Church and State: Santorum said he had wanted to “throw up” when reading a landmark speech by JFK on this issue.

Despite the loss, the former Pennsylvania senator appeared satisfied with his performance in Michigan. “We came into the backyard of one of my opponents, in a race that everyone said, ‘Well, just ignore Michigan, you have really no chance here’,” he said during his upbeat concession speech. “And the people of Michigan looked into the hearts of the candidates, and all I have to say is: I love you back.”

The delegate math in Michigan is more complicated than in Arizona. At the time of writing, Romney had pocketed 14 delegates and Santorum 12.  

In any case, the primary results in Arizona and Michigan will no doubt give new momentum to Romney, returning him once again to the position of front-runner. “We didn’t win by a lot, but we won by enough, and that’s all that counts,” he said during his Michigan victory speech.

But voters Tuesday did not dispel doubts that have been plaguing the presidential bid of the former Massachusetts governor from the get-go: that he isn’t conservative enough for the GOP primary base.

The Michigan exit polls tell the tale. 61% of voters who worry about the eligibility factor – the ability of a candidate to beat President Obama in November – voted for Romney. 54% of not very religious Republicans as well as 47% of individuals making more than $100,000 a year and 44% of college graduates also went for Romney. On the other hand, 62% of religious conservatives (and 77% of those who say that abortion is their top issue) voted for Santorum. Additionally, 46% of self-described Tea Party supporters, 45% of union card-carrying members, 41% of small city or rural dwellers, and 40% of those making less than $50,000 a year cast their ballot for the former Pennsylvania senator.

The gap between these two core Republican constituencies is far from bridged and Romney is far from overcoming the suspicions of voters who have been resisting him. What’s more, his path to the nomination is not about to get any easier. Religious conservatives and working class Republicans dominate many of the states that will vote on March 6 (for example, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Idaho and North Dakota) giving Santorum – and potentially a regenerated Newt Gingrich (whose super-PAC has received a much needed new injection of funds by deep-pocketed supporter Sheldon Adelson) – an opportunity to turn the tables around.

All eyes are on the big prize of Ohio. A state not unlike Michigan (similarly suffering for the economic crisis and the downturn of US-based manufacturing), Ohio has nevertheless generally been more conservative and, of course, Romney is much less known there. Santorum has been leading the polls by a wide margin lately, but it is likely that, after winning Arizona and Michigan, Romney will close in. In any case, as long as he sticks to his populist economic message, Santorum has the chance to pocket what is arguably one of the most crucial states in American presidential politics. And he will go head-to-head with Gingrich in Tennessee (where economic and social issues are both prominent) and, potentially, even on the former Speaker’s home turf of Georgia – a more traditionally conservative state from the deep south. Romney will likely bring home Vermont and Massachusetts, but nobody is paying too much attention to these reliably democratic New England states.