On one hand, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's win in Michigan was not by a wide margin. On the other hand, it was a much bigger and more important victory than former Senator Rick Santorum's supporters, other than perhaps the clear-eyed Stacy McCain, let on. The most important question, however, is whether Romney's Michigan victory will translate into momentum on Super Tuesday, in particular in the key state of Ohio.
Following the results in Michigan, Rick Santorum's betting odds (at intrade.com) of becoming the Republican nominee fell from almost 12 percent to under 7 percent, with Romney's odds moving back above the 80 percent threshold to about 82 percent. (Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul are each trading around 3 percent.)
Mitt Romney beat Rick Santorum in Michigan by just over 3 percent, at 41 percent to 38 percent, with Ron Paul coming in third at 11.6 percent and Newt Gingrich fourth with 6.5 percent.
The Santorum spin, as Quin Hillyer dutifully put forward, will be that Romney had to spend a lot of time and money to win his home state by only three percent, and that the two will probably split the state's 30 delegates evenly.
This line of argument, while factual, masks a very bad night for Santorum and a big victory for Romney.
For about 10 days, until less than a week ago, Santorum led Romney in the RealClearPolitics average of polls of Michigan primary with an edge between 5 and 9 percent for most of that time and a few individual polls showing advantages of 9, 10, and 15 points.
To lose a lead this big in a week is surprising even in a primary season as chaotic as this one, particularly following the recent Santorum trifecta of victories in Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota which added some octane to his electoral fuel.
Nearly as important as the fact that Santorum lost after having that lead is that he lost despite appealing to Democrat voters. Not only did Santorum target a "get out and vote against Romney" robo-call to Democrats -- a fact that will certainly be used against Santorum by Romney and others in future contests -- but Democratic strategists and radio show hosts also encouraged their fellow party members to vote for Santorum.
According to ABC News, "About 10 percent of the state's primary voters on Tuesday were Democrats, exit polls show. And they voted overwhelmingly for Santorum, with 53 percent picking the former senator versus the 17 percent who chose Romney."
Romney will point out that if only Republicans had voted in the Republican primary, his margin of victory would have been more than twice as large, at around 7 percent.
Santorum will argue that his getting Democrat votes shows that he is electable in the general election. But nobody should (or will) believe that line. Most Democrats supported Santorum because they're trying to damage Romney whom they consider to be more likely to beat President Obama in November, and because they're trying to cause chaos within the GOP race.
One Democratic strategist interviewed on CNN said, "We are turning [Democrats] out and feel we can provide a massive jolt and scare to the GOP establishment here in the state and in Washington, D.C. When we are done they'll be taking Pepto Bismol by the gallon at the RNC."
Again, the significant participation of Democrats trying to derail Romney is a major talking point going forward for Romney who, despite the Democrat mischief, actually took a higher percentage of Michigan primary voters than he did in 2008.
The big question for Mitt Romney, then, is whether he has Michigan Momentum, or whether Super Tuesday, less than a week away on March 6, will provide just the latest mile of the political rumble strip we've been driving over for two months.
The Super Tuesday states, which account for 437 delegates, in order of their total delegate count, are: Georgia (76), Ohio (66), Tennessee (58), Virginia (49), Oklahoma (43), Massachusetts (41), Idaho (32), North Dakota (28), Alaska (27), and Vermont (7).
Among states with at least 40 delegates, Newt Gingrich is likely to win his home state of Georgia, and Virginia is a safe Romney win with only Mitt Romney and Ron Paul on the ballot there. Rick Santorum's leads in Tennessee and Oklahoma -- notwithstanding that no lead feels safe in 2012 -- are likely to hold up, with recent polls putting him ahead of Romney by about 20 percent in each state. Romney's largest margin of victory of the primary season will likely come in Massachusetts, where polls have him leading Rick Santorum by roughly 45 percent.
Polling data is scarce in small states, though Romney is likely to win Idaho because of that state's large Mormon population (estimated at 23 percent of the state.)
Of the top three Super Tuesday states, Gingrich and Santorum each seem to have one in hand. Therefore, Ohio, as the only truly competitive large Super Tuesday state, is a critical win for Mitt Romney. It is particularly so because of its pivotal "swing state" role in the general election.
No Republican has ever taken the presidential oath of office without winning Ohio in the general election. (Democrats have done it twice: FDR in 1944 and JFK in 1960.) Winning the primary election in Ohio, giving that state's voters a greater rooting interest in a candidate's future general election success, is the brass ring that Santorum and Romney will be reaching for next Tuesday.
Michigan and Ohio border each other and are similar states economically and demographically. Each state has a slight Democratic edge over Republicans in voter registration, though Ohio leans slightly less Democratic, has a smaller proportion of union members, and holds a much less favorable view of Barack Obama than Michigan does. They are each heavily industrial states with Catholics making up about 20 percent of the population.
Rick Santorum has been leading the RealClearPolitics average of polls in the Buckeye State since Feb 13, though the number of polls has been small.
The most recent poll in Ohio, taken during late February when Santorum was riding high in surveys across the nation, showed Santorum with an 11 point lead over Romney, at 37 percent to 26 percent. But with the election only a week away, the candidates' support is exceedingly soft: "Nearly half (47%) of Republican primary voters say they may change their mind between now and Election Day."
In betting odds to win the Republican contest in Ohio, Romney has been holding above the 50 percent mark for most of the past week, other than a brief dip going into the Michigan contest, after trading closer to 40 percent during the middle of the month when Santorum's popularity was at its recent peak. Similarly, Santorum's current odds in Ohio, around 46 percent, are essentially identical to his odds for most of the past week, despite his loss in Michigan.
Romney's Ohio betting odds hovering above 50 percent despite being down in recent polls mirror the Michigan betting pattern, where his odds stayed near 50 percent even when polls showed Rick Santorum with a double-digit lead less than a week before the vote. The bettors knew better.
Voters like supporting a winner, so Mitt Romney's Michigan victory is extremely important going into the critical Ohio race. While Romney only won Michigan by 3 percent, among Republicans he won by nearly 7 percent. Rick Santorum's appealing to Democrats should turn off many GOP voters in coming contests; Romney's characterization of Santorum's move as a desperate "dirty trick" will ring true.
In Ohio, only Republicans can vote in the Republican primary, although voters can change their party affiliation at the polling place so today's Democrats can be tomorrow's Republicans and vote in the GOP contest.
Unlike in Michigan, Democratic voting in the Republican primary will probably not be a significant factor in Ohio for two reasons: First, Rick Santorum won't spend money on Democrat-targeted calls and ads after having done it once at substantial political cost and without substantial electoral benefit. It remains to be seen whether Democrat activists and media will try for another "Operation Hilarity" in Ohio, given their modest success in Michigan; bloggers certainly will since the cost of asking a voter to switch parties is zero. Second, Ohio voters may only change party affiliation going into a "partisan primary" election, meaning that any Democrat who switches to become a Republican is stuck with GOP registration for at least two years, something few Democrats may be willing to do.
Although it may be an impossibly high hurdle to clear, the candidates will be highly incentivized to try to capture 50 percent of the vote in Ohio as that is one of a handful of states which only has proportional delegate allocation if no candidate reaches that threshold, but allocates winner-take-all should someone win an outright majority. (The same rule applies in Oklahoma, which may give Mr. Romney reason to campaign more in that state than one might expect where an opponent has such a commanding lead.)
If there's anything that might make Mitt Romney think a big Ohio victory is possible, it is having some Michigan Momentum. Does he have it, or will the big wave behind him crash yet again on the breakwater of conservative doubts? We'll find out next Tuesday.