Ben Adler reports on Republican and conservative politics and media for The Nation as a contributing writer.
It may be true that you can't buy love, but Mitt Romney has proved that in politics you can buy enough distaste for your opponent that the outcome is the same.
In Arizona, where Romney won comfortably, he outspent his closest competitor, Rick Santorum, 12 to 1. In Michigan Romney outspent Santorum 2 to 1. Michigan was too close to call for more than two hours after the polls closed. Eventually Romney was declared the winner. But while he edged Santorum by a few points in the total vote — with 92 percent of the votes counted Romney was up 41-38 — he comes away from the night a loser. As 10:30 pm, when the networks had just called Michigan for Romney, Santorum was ahead of Romney in nine of the state's 14 congressional districts. The winner of each congressional district will be awarded its two delegates, with only two at large delegates going to Romney for winning the statewide vote. The result? Thanks to the way their votes are distributed, Santorum could actually take more delegates from Michigan's primary than Romney. Whatever the precise count ends up being, it's fair to basically call the results a tie.
But a tie is really a loss for Romney. Romney grew up in Michigan, where his father was the governor, and he was expected to easily win the state. By letting Santorum get ahead of him in Michigan polls last week, Romney had already lost. Previously when one of Romney's opponents passed him in a poll or beat him in a contest I thought the media over-stated the extent to which this showed Romney's weakness. Polls are volatile and campaigns have ups and downs. But entering a stretch of states that are especially congenial to Romney,it was finally time for him to demonstrate that he could unite Republicans — at least outside the South — behind his candidacy. If so many Michigan voters were so lukewarm to Romney — an impression reinforced by a series of underwhelming events in the state this past week — then the widespread aversion to him is undeniable.
As David Weigel noted in Slate on Monday, until Santorum's surge, "No one had bested Romney in [statewide] polls since 2009. Santorum adviser John Brabender has said his candidate 'already won' here, because he's forcing Romney to hustle in the place where he was born." Brabender is not entirely correct. Santorum won't become the Republican nominee merely by proving how unenthusiastic Romney's support is. The nominee will be decided by delegates. Thanks to Arizona, Romney will come away from Tuesday's primaries with far more delegates than Santorum. But it's true that Santorum can call his result in Michigan a partial success, while for Romney the primary represents a near-total failure.
Romney has no excuses for tonight's results, and the feeble excuses he has been trying to mount won't wash. He wasn't outspent. He wasn't at a geographic disadvantage. Michigan is not a state dominated by Evangelicals or other social conservatives, who are naturally suspicious of the formerly pro-choice Mormon from Massachusetts. In 2008 Romney beat John McCain in Michigan by nine points. The Upper Midwest is where general elections are decided.
Romney will try to spin his loss as being an unrepresentative of Republican sentiment because 9 percent of the voters in Michigan's open primary were Democrats, and Santorum performed better among them than among the Republicans and independents who voted. (Santorum won 53 percent to Romney's 17 percent among Democrats, while they tied among independents and Romney won 47 to 37 among Republicans.) Indeed, Santorum openly pursued their votes. "Senator Santorum did something today which I think is deceptive and a dirty trick, which is he's put an ad out there sounding like a labor ad telling labor folks and Democrats to go vote against me and vote for Rick Santorum," Romney said to FOX News' Sean Hannity Monday night. This is just pathetic. There's nothing unethical about asking members of another party vote for you in a state that holds an open primary. It's possible some of the Democrats were mischief makers trying to bolster Santorum, who is widely viewed as less electable than Romney. But some of them might have been swing voters whom any Republican candidate must win if they are to carry Michigan.
Michigan s where political scientist Stanley Greenberg invented the term "Reagan Democrats." The exit polls suggest that Santorum did better among this working class demographic. Santorum won by a slim margin among voters who make less than $100,000 per year while Romney won among those who make more than that. Perhaps that's why Romney has lost his advantage over Santorum in polls that match each of them up against President Obama. (Santorum also beat Romney among voters who never attended college degree, while Romney won those who did, which Santorum — being so contemptuous of higher education — would view as a badge of honor.)
As Santorum pointed out, Romney's whole electability argument is, in essence, that he will do better than Santorum among Democrats in November. He can't honestly say that but then turn around and complain that Santorum beating him among Democrats is illegitimate.
So how did Romney reverse Santorum's momentum and avoid total embarrassment? The same way he usually wins, by burying his opponent in a barrage of negative advertising. The Romney campaign and the Restore Our Future Super Pac spent $4.27 million on television and radio advertising in Michigan. Ninety-one percent of that was spent on negative advertising. From the time Romney starting running the ads Santorum lost a point and a half in polling per day. (Romney also got an assist from Santorum himself, who made a series of offensive statements such as saying that President Kennedy's commitment to the separation of church and state made him "want to throw up.")
The result of all this? A depressed Republican electorate. As a whiny Monday night memo from Newt Gingrich's campaign shows, the states where Romney has won through heavy negative advertising, such as Nevada and Florida, have had lower significantly lower turnout than they did in 2008.
In fairness to Romney, the religious extremism among many Republicans is part of what hurt him in Michigan. He lost to Santorum, 51 to 35, among the 32 percent of voters who identify as evangelical Christians. Santorum also won among voters who said a candidate's religion matters and Romney among those who disagree. And a bright spot for Romney is that he won among suburbanites, who will be the crucial swing voters in Michigan this November.
While Romney won by a wide margin in Arizona — with 74 percent of precincts reporting he was ahead of Santorum 48 to 26 — it may come at a cost in the general election. Romney has been pandering to the far right on immigration since 2008 when he won Tom Tancredo's endorsement. He has attacked Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich from the right on immigration in this campaign. In Arizona he pandered to the state GOP's notorious xenophobia. Luis Heredia, Arizona's Democratic Party Executive Director, issued a statement predicting adverse consequences for Romney in the general election:
"By pandering to the Tea Party and some of the most divisive politicians in the nation, Romney has alienated the voters he needs in November's general election, including Arizona independents, moderates, and the Latino community.
Romney confirmed that he would be the most extreme presidential nominee of our lifetimes on immigration. He called this state's divisive and anti-immigrant law a 'model' for the nation, promised to veto the DREAM Act and derided it as a 'handout', and embraced the inhumane policy of 'self-deportation.'"
The longer the primaries go on, the more our initial understanding of the race seems assured: Romney will likely win the Republican nomination, but his party doesn't like him very much. And to win them over he has to run hard to the right. President Obama has been a lucky man in many ways, but mostly he has been lucky in his opponents. This year will be no exception.