Turning points have come and gone in this year’s remarkably turbulent Republican presidential race. But Mitt Romney’s narrow victory in Tuesday’s Michigan primary may represent a Battle of the Bulge moment in which he has tipped the balance of the fight by demonstrating the ability to amass a slightly broader coalition than his principal rival, Rick Santorum.
Romney’s tight Michigan victory was hardly commanding: He managed only a relatively narrow margin in a state where he was born, his father served as governor, and he won comfortably four years ago. In terms of stabilizing Romney’s position in the race, the Michigan victory was necessary but not sufficient.
Yet the results in both Michigan and Arizona suggest that Santorum, after two weeks of searing rhetoric on social issues virtually unprecedented in modern presidential politics, has narrowed his support to a slice of the party that is broad enough to worry Romney, but slightly too thin to actually beat him. In Michigan, the night’s marquee contest, Santorum showed too little appeal beyond the most conservative elements of the GOP coalition. In particular, he failed to attract enough blue-collar Republicans, including Catholics, to overcome Romney’s continuing edge with more upscale voters.
Holding the party’s ideological base would likely allow Santorum to continue winning some of the most conservative states on the calendar, such as Oklahoma and Tennessee, which vote Tuesday. But Santorum will need to expand beyond it to prevent Romney from reestablishing a decisive advantage in the race by capturing upcoming showdowns Ohio and Illinois with more diverse primary electorates.
While Romney ran well among virtually all groups in Arizona, the Michigan results crystallized the overlapping ideological, class, and religious divides that are hardening in the GOP race.
In both states, Romney continued to demonstrate formidable strength among the key components of the GOP’s managerial wing of more affluent, well-educated, secular, and moderate voters, according to exit polls posted on CNN.com. In Oakland County, a classic white-collar suburb outside Detroit that has trended Democratic in general elections since 1992, Romney crushed Santorum by about 20 percentage points or nearly 30,000 votes (with almost 90 percent reporting). That roughly equaled his overall statewide margin with nearly 90 percent of the vote counted.
In all five states for which exit polls have been conducted so far, Romney has run best among voters earning at least $100,000 annually and he continued that pattern on Tuesday night. Among those affluent voters, Romney beat Santorum by a solid 15 percentage-point margin in Michigan and routed him by over two-to-one in Arizona.
Likewise, Romney ran 9 percentage points ahead of Santorum among Michigan voters with at least a four-year college degree, and routed him by 21 percentage points among those voters in Arizona. In each state, voters who do not identify as evangelical Christians comprised about three-fifths of the vote: Romney carried them by 15 percentage points in Michigan and almost twice that in Arizona. In every state with an exit poll so far, Romney has won a plurality of voters who do not identify as evangelical Christians, at least 37 percent in each case.
In every earlier state, Romney has run better among voters who say they support the tea party only somewhat or are neutral on the movement, and that pattern, too, continued Tuesday night. Romney posted big advantages over Santorum among voters in each of those categories in both Arizona and Michigan.
And just as in the earlier states, Romney also ran well among voters who consider themselves moderate. In Arizona, Romney beat Santorum by about three-to one among voters who consider themselves moderate or liberal; those voters tilted only slightly toward Romney in Michigan, which may reflect Democratic dipping into the GOP race more than a shift in the ideological allegiances of Republican voters. More important, Romney won big among the ideological swing constituency in the GOP primary, the roughly one-third of voters in each state who consider themselves “somewhat conservative.” In both Arizona and Michigan, those voters preferred Romney over Santorum by at least twenty percentage points, the exit polls found.
In Michigan, Romney may even have demonstrated a capacity to change the composition of the electorate. His base -- well-educated, affluent voters --represented a notably larger share of the vote than four years ago. In 2008, voters with at least a four-year college degree comprised only 43 percent of the Michigan electorate; that spiked to 51 percent Tuesday night. Similarly, voters earning at least $100,000 annually cast only about one-fifth of the Michigan GOP ballots last time; Tuesday night that rose to one-third.
That high turnout may reflect Romney’s unique link to the state: he was reared in Oakland County. But the overall pattern of results -- and conversations with dozens of Michigan voters last weekend -- reinforce the sense from earlier contests that Romney is a comfortable, solid choice for the GOP’s managerial wing. These voters are drawn to his business experience, his boardroom style and the belief that he is most likely to revive the economy. Indeed, without the crossover participation from Democrats (who cast one-in-eleven ballots), Romney would have won the state by more: the exit poll found that he beat Santorum among self-identified Republicans by a surprisingly wide 49 percent to 36 percent.
Yet Tuesday’s Michigan results also underscored the durable resistance Romney faces among key components of the GOP’s populist wing. In Michigan, the ideological vanguard of the party consolidated around Santorum. That suggests he maintains the ability to wound Romney in states where those voters dominate the GOP electorate-mostly in the South and across the Heartland.
But, as in earlier states, the exit polls show that Santorum in Michigan failed to reach beyond that ideological vanguard to unify the broader swath of blue-collar “Sam’s Club” Republicans that have been the principal target for his economic message.
In Michigan, Santorum amassed solid, but not preponderant, advantages with the key populist groups. Santorum beat Romney by 13 percentage points among voters who consider themselves very conservative and 16 percentage points among those who identify as evangelical Christians. Those advantages were narrower than Santorum’s edge over Romney with those groups in Iowa, or, for that matter, Newt Gingrich’s lead over Romney with those groups in South Carolina. (In Arizona, Santorum ran even with Romney among very conservative voters-much better than he did with those who identify as less conservative-and beat him narrowly among evangelicals.) Strong tea party supporters preferred Santorum in both states, but only by four percentage points in Arizona and eight percentage points in Michigan.
While Santorum generally ran well with those highly-ideological voters, he performed much more modestly with the broader working-class component of the GOP coalition in Michigan -- voters he targeted with a sharply class-conscious message that emphasized his upbringing in a Western Pennsylvania steel town and derided President Obama as “a snob” for encouraging more students to attend college.
In Michigan, Santorum carried voters earning less than $50,000 by four percentage points, and those earning between $50,000 and $100,000 by 2 percentage points, in each case much less than Romney amassed among those earning more. The story was the same among voters without a college degree: the exit poll showed Santorum only running about even among them, much less than Romney’s advantage among those with degrees.
And after an extraordinary weekend in which Santorum, himself a Catholic, vociferously attacked the first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, for defending the separation of church and state, the exit poll showed Santorum losing Michigan Catholics to Romney by 45 percent to 37 percent. (Romney also carried Catholics in Arizona). That continued a pattern: Romney has outpolled Santorum among Catholics in each of the states with exit polls so far. (It’s likely that Santorum carried Catholics in Missouri’s non-binding primary, but no exit poll was conducted there).
Tellingly, Romney beat Santorum in Macomb County, the classic white-working class suburb outside of Detroit, and ran only about 300 votes behind him in Genesee County, centered on beleaguered blue-collar Flint.
The close contest in Michigan only adds to the stakes in Ohio, the most closely watched state on next Tuesday’s “Super Tuesday” calendar. Like Michigan, Ohio’s 2008 primary electorate tilted heavily toward working-class voters: three-in-five of 2008 Ohio GOP voters lacked a college degree and four-in-five made $100,000 or less. Catholics represented one-fourth of Ohio’s vote.
In Ohio, Romney won’t have the home-state affinity that encouraged more upscale voters to turn out for him in Michigan. And Santorum will also benefit because evangelical Christians are likely to comprise a larger share of the vote in Ohio than in Michigan. Early polls show Santorum leading in Ohio. But Tuesday’s results suggest that to avoid losing that lead -- and allowing Romney to reestablish a clear advantage in this remarkably unsettled race -- Santorum must find a way to reconnect with voters beyond the GOP’s most ardent ideological vanguard. That is, if he still can after the eruptions he’s triggered this month on issues from contraception to college attendance.