GOP Race Hinges on Michigan Vote

GOP Race Hinges on Michigan Vote

"You'll see things start to clarify. If, as people expect, you end up with a Romney victory in Michigan tomorrow, I think you'll see Santorum getting a very different second look."

-- Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich talking to reporters while campaigning in Tennessee, which holds its Republican primary a week from today.

The Republican presidential nomination process hinges today on the choice of Michigan voters.

A traditionally Democratic state (Obama won here by 16 points in 2008 and no Republican presidential candidate has carried the state since 1988), Michigan’s economy has been convulsed by the 2009 failure of automakers General Motors and Chrysler, which punctuated a decades long slide into poverty, crime and blight for the city of Detroit, once a colossus of American capitalism and manufacturing.

And while Michigan is much more than Detroit, Detroit is most of Michigan. The 5.3 million residents of the Detroit Metro area – which includes cities and counties in Detroit’s orbit, like former GM company town Flint and Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan – represent 53 percent of the state’s population.

But the bankruptcy of GM and Chrysler and the long slide from the glory days of 40 years ago changed the composition of the Detroit area and the politics of the state. The city itself lost a quarter of its population in the first decade of this century. That shifted the balance of power in the state to the Detroit suburbs, places like Oakland and Macomb counties, and away from the urban precincts that delivered reliable Democratic votes.

Special Michigan Primary Coverage: Track the Race in Real Time >>

While the Detroit suburbs are still largely Democratic, they are stocked with social conservatives and fiscal moderates – the much-vaunted “Reagan Democrats.” The other 47 percent of the state’s population is largely Republican, which set the stage for one of the most amazing reversals of the 2010 election cycle.

In 2010, Michigan voters moved sharply right, electing a Republican governor, Rick Snyder, by 18 points, an even larger margin that Obama’s victory just two years prior. Republicans grabbed two more House seats, now holding nine of 15, swept the other statewide offices and took control of both houses of the state legislature.

So it is fitting that Michigan, which has so closely mirrored the GOPs national experience in recent years, would be the proving ground for frontrunners Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.

There are 59 delegates up for grabs today, and Romney will certainly with the majority of them. Romney is a prohibitive favorite in Arizona, which awards its 29 delegates to whomever wins the popular vote. Arizona has a lot of libertarian-minded Republicans in the Goldwater tradition as well as a significant Mormon population, leaving social conservative Santorum unable to find purchase.

Michigan, though, will award its delegates mostly on the basis of its 14 new congressional districts, redrawn after the loss of a seat for the next Congress. Romney, who was born and raised in the Detroit suburbs and is the son of a three-term governor and former auto CEO, won 13 of 15 districts in 2008 when he took 67 percent of the state’s primary popular vote in his bid to block John McCain’s nomination.

Even if Romney loses the popular vote, he is certain to win at least five congressional districts. At two delegates per district, Romney will end this Election Day adding a minimum of 39 delegates. If Santorum surges to a big win in Michigan, he will win, at most, 20 delegates.

Romney would have a 146 to 63 delegate lead over Santorum based on hard delegates already won and estimated delegates from states, like Iowa, that do not hold primary elections but have taken polls of caucus and convention goers. In hard delegates only, Romney would lead Santorum 112 to 22 – and that’s the worst-case scenario for Romney. Polls suggest a very close race and an even division of delegates.

But none of that math matters for the most important thing in primaries: momentum. Super Tuesday is only one week away with 509 delegates on the line. A week later, bright-red states Alabama, Kansas and Mississippi and other, smaller prizes have their primaries, with 186 delegates on the line. Even if Romney rebounds later in a one-on-one match with Santorum, he will have missed his chance to lock up a decisive win.

If Romney loses the popular vote in his native Michigan, delegate counts will mean bupkis. Such is the life of the frontrunner: you don’t get credit for winning, but you catch hell for every loss.

The story of the weak frontrunner will be forcefully revived and Santorum would be able, as Newt Gingrich did in South Carolina, to claim the title of giant killer. Michigan matters so much because not only is it Romney’s home turf, but we are now later in the process and closer to the start of the election avalanche of the coming weeks.

Remember, before today only 5 percent of Republican delegates had been spoken for. By April 1, more than half will be gone. If Romney gets upset in Michigan, his hopes to for a fruitful spring will fade and the chances of a long slog into the summer and, possibly, to the convention floor in August. Imagine six more months like the one we’ve just had.

But the stakes are just as high for Santorum, maybe even a little higher.

While Romney is ready for a death-march of a primary process, Santorum is improvising his campaign. That style has helped the former Pennsylvania senator catch great gusts of populist, anti-Wall Street sentiment and harness the anger of many Republican Christians who believe their faith is under siege by the Obama administration.

But, as he has seen in the past two weeks, it comes with great peril.

Santorum’s stance as an unabashed “full-spectrum” conservative brings greater scrutiny to his record and past deviations from conservative principles. It is not surprising to Republicans that moderate Romney cut political deals in Massachusetts, but it seems strange for Santorum. His debate performance last week revealed just how awkward that can be.

And on the issue of being a commander in the newly revived culture wars, Santorum faces risks too. Even Republicans who agree with him wonder how well Santorum’s red-hot rhetoric on faith and social issues will serve their party in a general election.

A win in Michigan would help allay a lot of those doubts and greatly improve his chances to win some major victories on Super Tuesday, particularly in neighboring Ohio, a state with much in common with Michigan (pace, Buckeye and Wolverine fans).

But if Santorum, who has yet to win a primary, loses both Michigan and Arizona today, the doubts will deepen. His immediate concern would be that Gingrich might become, for the third time, the top Not Romney in the race. If Santorum stumbles, Gingrich will be waiting down South to resume racking up delegates, potentially leaving Santorum out of the running.

The greatest beneficiary of a continuation of the Not Romney primary within the primaries is, of course, Romney himself.

Romney has lost races to both Santorum (non-binding straw polls in Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri) and Gingrich (South Carolina’s primary). Each time, the victor has claimed that the Not Romney primary has been concluded and that he, either Santorum and Gingrich, will now go head-to-head with Romney all the way to the final votes in June. They have been wrong each time.

The best news for Romney would be if a double-barreled win tonight sets of the most ferocious Not Romney fighting yet, with Gingrich yanking down Santorum and Santorum damaging Gingrich’s chances for a Super Tuesday breakthrough. Divided, they could be conquered.

Michigan wouldn’t matter so much if it weren’t Romney’s native state, so that is an accident of birth and the primary calendar. But that happenstance has set up a mighty battle in a blue state turned Tea Party red in 2010 and ground zero for President Obama’s re-election strategy.

The polls are tied, the airwaves are saturated and the voters are mobilized – a political junkie’s dream. It’s a shame Bob Uecker isn’t around to call this play-by-play.

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on