By Luke Brinker
The latest polls out of Michigan show that Rick Santorum’s once robust lead over native son Mitt Romney has vanished. But while Romney’s chances of eking out a win in the state on February 28 look increasingly good, it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to convert a Michigan victory into a win in the swing state this November.
NBC and Marist, whose latest poll gives Romney a narrow 37 percent to 35 percent edge over Santorum, also polled voters on their preferences in general election match-ups. President Barack Obama trounced Santorum by 26 points, 55 percent to 29 percent, underscoring the right-wing former senator’s significant liabilities as a general election candidate. Most striking, however, was the size of Obama’s lead over Romney, whose father was governor of the state and who is generally considered the most moderate candidate in the GOP field. The president scored 51 percent to Romney’s 33 percent, calling into question Romney’s swing state appeal.
It’s worth noting that Michigan has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984, the year of President Ronald Reagan’s re-election landslide. Still, the long-suffering state is widely seen as a key battleground, given its status as the birthplace for the so-called Reagan Democrats. Until quite late in the general election season, Sen. John McCain made a concerted play for the state in 2008, and the state was heavily contested in 2004, when Democrat John Kerry won the state by a mere three points over President George W. Bush. With an unemployment rate pegged at 9.8 percent — well above the national figure of 8.3 percent — the state had looked ripe for a Republican win in 2012. As recently as November, polling showed Romney leading Obama by five points in the state.
What accounts for the GOP’s reversal of fortune in Michigan? Put simply, it’s the auto bailout, stupid. While he supported the Bush administration’s Wall Street bailout in the fall of 2008, Romney infamously penned a New York Times op-ed entitled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” in November 2008. (Santorum, despite his blue-collar image, also opposed the bailout.) A managed bankruptcy — not federal support — was the best way to revive the sagging auto industry, Romney argued. Romney now asserts that because General Motors and Chrysler eventually did enter bankruptcy, he was right all along, but this oft-repeated talking point ignores experts’ assessment that absent the initial infusion of $80 billion in federal funds, the auto companies would never have been able to emerge successfully from the bankruptcy proceedings. With both GM and Chrysler now posting healthy profits — something few could have foreseen in the dark days of 2008 and 2009 — the bailout is generally seen as having worked.
Voters don’t often do counterfactuals, but in Michigan, voters appear to appreciate that the auto bailout headed off a disaster scenario in which the auto companies, their suppliers, and the numerous jobs in local communities dependent on Detroit’s carmakers collapsed in the absence of federal support. The psychological impact of such a catastrophe in the midst of the economy’s gloomiest days would have been devastating, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that the NBC-Marist poll finds that 63 percent of Michigan voters consider the bailout to have been a good idea. Without federal action, it’s a certainty that the state’s unemployment rate would be far greater, and even Rick Snyder, the conservative Republican governor and a Romney supporter, has had nice things to say about the bailout. Running against the bailout may not do as much damage in a GOP primary, but a general election candidate will have a hard time explaining to Michigan voters why Goldman Sachs merited a bailout but General Motors didn’t.
Romney’s repeated difficulties in relating to blue-collar voters — difficulties compounded by his image as a Mr. One Percent who enjoys firing people who provide services to him and who accuses critics of his private equity record of being jealous of his wealth – will likely carry over into other Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. Without Ohio (where recent polling shows Obama narrowly leads Romney), there is simply no way for Republicans to wrest the White House from Democratic hands. While Tea Party types will blame a Romney loss on his allegedly insufficient conservatism, Romney’s plutocratic image and the improving economy will likely do far greater damage in the fall.
So while Romney may well win his home state next Tuesday, his victory there will not portend anything for the fall. “Romney wins Michigan” looks like it’s more and more probable to be the headline next week, but it almost certainly won’t be on the morning of November 7, 2012.