The lesson of last night’s results in Michigan, more than anything else, should be that this primary season is like none we have experienced in decades.
Momentum is a much less potent force than it has been in the past, and voters in each state seem to be making decisions independent of what is happening in earlier contests. While the media is always eager to anoint frontrunners, the truth is that there are none in either party, and that seven candidates still have a chance to win the two nomination battles (sorry John Edwards).
With that said, there were certainly winners and losers in last night’s results, and the implications are worth reflecting on.
Biggest Winner: Mitt Romney. Had Mitt Romney lost the state of his birth after a series of disappointing losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, it would have been very difficult for him to justify continuing his campaign. But he did win, and did so impressively. Pitching himself as the businessman with a reputation as a turnaround artist, Romney was able to gain a decisive victory over John McCain. Polls taken before the contest were much closer than Romney’s eventual margin, which stood at 39 percent to 30 percent as of this writing. Now Romney can claim that he leads in delegates, and has been in first or second in every contest so far. He also has the personal fortune to go the distance in a race that is looking more and more like a long march.
With that said, Romney still faces a lot of obstacles toward capturing the nomination. He began this race with a lower national profile than his rivals and has consistently lagged nationally not only in overall horse race polls, but in terms of likeability and electability. His strategy was to run the table in the early nominating contests so that he could build up enough momentum to close the gap nationally ahead of February 5, when over 20 states vote. But a win in his home state of Michigan will not be sufficient to achieve this goal.
Biggest Losers: John McCain and Hillary Clinton. With a win in Michigan following his victory in New Hampshire, John McCain would have cemented his status as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination and gone into South Carolina with a full head of steam. Instead, Romney put the brakes on his post-New Hampshire momentum, and his loss last night will bring more attention to the fact that many conservatives still have reservations about him becoming the nominee. He can regain his edge with a win on Saturday in South Carolina.
Hillary Clinton went into Michigan as the sure winner, because no other major Democratic candidate was on the ballot. Even though she won, as of this writing, she only beat out “uncommitted” by a 55 percent to 40 percent margin, with over 236,000 voters trekking to the polls just to vote generically against her. Most troubling for her heading into South Carolina, where black voters make up half of the Democratic electorate, is that exit polls showed 68 percent of blacks preferred “uncommitted.” She also lost to “uncommitted” among independents, and voters in the 18-29 and 30-44 age ranges. If only “uncommitted” had enough money to take out television ads like Richard Pryor in Brewster’s Millions, it might have defeated the junior Senator from New York.
Another Loser: Mike Huckabee. Michigan provided the opportunity for Mike Huckabee to prove that he has an appeal beyond his coreligionists, but he ended up with just 16 percent of the vote, and according to exit polls, even lost the born-again/evangelical Christian vote to Romney. He’ll be on more friendly ground in South Carolina, but his showing in Michigan raised doubts about his ability to be a viable national candidate.
Lucky Bystanders: Barack Obama, Fred Thompson, and Rudy Giuliani. It is difficult to call two Republicans who ended up in single digits and a Democrat who wasn’t even on the ballot “winners,” but Michigan certainly gave them all something to smile about.
For Obama, the overwhelming rejection of Clinton by black voters demonstrates that the racially-charged turn that the campaign has taken has badly damaged Clinton among a demographic group that was crucial to her husband’s success. Should black voters coalesce around Obama, given his already strong support among high-income white voters, he’ll be hard to stop in Democratic nominating contests.
In addition to seeing McCain knocked down a peg, Thompson is in the best position to benefit from a perception that Huckabee is not a viable national candidate. Thompson has been campaigning vigorously in South Carolina, where he has one last chance to demonstrate that he’s the only consistent conservative in the race, and the candidate who can unite the Republican Party. The big question is whether any Thompson surge will merely take enough votes from Huckabee to hand the state to McCain, or if it will be significant enough to win the primary and instantly vault him back into serious contention for the nomination.
Giuliani has gotten exactly what he wanted — three different winners in the early nominating contests, which means an increasingly chaotic Republican race heading into Florida, where he has been camping out and his campaign is touting large, enthusiastic crowds. McCain’s loss in Michigan takes some wind out of the sails of Giuliani’s biggest threat in Florida and nationally, as both candidates are competing for moderate voters and those who care primarily about national security.
The problem for Giuliani is that although part of his strategy was based on the field being unsettled by the time it got to Florida, the other part was premised on his staying at least somewhat competitive in the early states.
Instead, Giuliani has yet to break into the double digits. He finished sixth in Iowa, fourth in New Hampshire, and sixth again in Michigan. Ron Paul, meanwhile, finished ahead of him in two states. Within two weeks, the national frontrunner for most of 2007 could either be proven a visionary or end up exiting the race with fewer delegates than Duncan Hunter.