Mitt Romney hasn’t given up hope on his home state.
The son of former Michigan governor and automotive icon George Romney will campaign in the Wolverine State on Tuesday, appearing at a community college in Lansing. The event is, presumably, another attempt to pry the youth vote from President Obama, but the decision to hold it in Michigan is a potentially more telling sign of Romney’s general-election strategy.
Instead of campaigning in a range of obvious swing states -- pick among a list that includes Ohio, Virginia, Florida, Colorado, Nevada, or Pennsylvania -- the presumptive GOP presidential nominee is spending valuable time in a state most observers have pegged as Obama territory.
The visit is the latest sign Team Romney, at least in the early moments of the campaign, isn’t conceding Michigan to Obama. His super PAC, Restore Our Future, is running ads over the state’s airwaves now. And just last week his senior campaign adviser, Eric Fehrnstrom, boldly declared that Michigan topped a list of traditionally blue states that could turn red in 2012.
“Mitt Romney is a native Michigander,” Fehrnstrom said. “His dad was a two-term governor there. People are familiar with the Romney brand of leadership.”
Romney’s home-state ambition indicates two important facts about the opening weeks of the presidential race: The Romney campaign believes it can, at least to some degree, ameliorate the political damage caused by his opposition to the auto-company bailout, and it underscores the hard road it must walk to reach 270 electoral votes.
Romney was a fierce opponent of using government money to prop up the flailing auto industry in 2008, writing an op-ed in The New York Times titled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” That opinion piece has caused Romney some difficulties.
And he hardened his opposition only a few months ago, during the weeks-long Republican primary in Michigan. Pushed by Rick Santorum’s threatening conservative insurgent campaign at the time, Romney tacked hard to the right, writing an op-ed in The Detroit News that labeled the rescue “crony capitalism.”
The primary seemed to extinguish any hope of winning the state in November, particularly while General Motors and Chrysler enjoyed a stunning financial turnaround. Sixty-three percent of Michigan's registered voters there think assisting the car companies was a good idea, according to a Marist/NBC News survey.
But Romney hasn’t backed down. Fehrnstrom, echoing previous statements from the campaign, argued that the White House eventually followed Romney’s recommended course of action to let the companies go bankrupt. “Consider that the only economic success [Obama] has had is because he followed Mitt Romney’s advice,” Fehrnstrom said.
Romney’s argument might stretch credulity with voters. Obama officials have pointed out that no private funding was available for the car companies at the time Romney wanted them to go bankrupt, and the president enjoys majority support among voters there largely as a result. Romney’s advisers can argue the substance of the bailout plan all they want; at the moment, public perception clearly isn’t on their side.
So why are they making a play for a state that looks predisposed to the president? Because despite Michigan’s difficulty, Romney’s campaign doesn't have many other electoral targets left to aim at. Any Republican presidential nominee faces an uphill climb to reach the magic 270 electoral votes.
Consider that 18 states, plus the District of Columbia, haven’t gone for the GOP presidential nominee since 1988. Those states, Michigan included, add up to 242 electoral votes. That essentially amounts to Obama’s floor, and he needs only to win a combination of others -- like Nevada, Colorado, New Hampshire, and New Mexico – to win a second term.
Because of his struggles with Latino voters, Mountain West battlegrounds like Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico might be a difficult lift for Romney. Penetrating the 18-state “blue wall” then, might make more sense.
They could look to Pennsylvania, a big state George W. Bush nearly won twice and whose suburban population outside of Philadelphia is amendable to supporting the businessman Romney. But according to state GOP Chairman Rob Gleason, even the Romney campaign doubts it can win in the Keystone State. "I don't think anyone thinks we can carry Pennsylvania, I don't think even Romney thinks we can win Pennsylvania,” the chairman told the Allentown Morning Call.
Michigan isn't a certain lost cause for Romney. He still benefits from a home-field advantage, and -- just like everywhere else -- pessimism about the future of the country and the economy can quickly overwhelm Obama's built-in advantages. If the economy continues to languish, it will be the president, not Romney, who has far more concerns about the electoral map.
But right now, Romney's home state hope looks like a long shot.