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Romney Not Out of the Woods in Michigan

Up until today, the trend in Michigan had seemed to be running heavily in Mitt Romney’s favor as Rick Santorum’s February surge sputtered to a halt amid his controversial social issue stands and poor debate performance. But the results from two of the latest polls are a portrait of a race still up for grabs. Both Rasmussen and the Mitchell/Rosetta Stone surveys of Michigan Republicans showed a slight uptick for Santorum. The previous Rasmussen poll taken last Thursday (immediately after Santorum’s bad debate night) showed Romney leading by a 40-34-percentage point margin. Their latest poll conducted on Sunday shows Romney only up by 2 points at 38-36. Last Thursday, Mitchell/Rosetta Stone had Romney up 36-33. By Sunday, their pollsters found Santorum was leading 37-35.

What does this mean? The experience of the last month illustrates plainly that anyone who tries to predict the outcome of anything to do with the GOP presidential race is likely to be wrong the majority of the time. How Santorum managed to gain ground during a three-day period when he seemed to do nothing but stumble is beyond me. But perhaps we are looking at this problem from the wrong end of the telescope. Every time Romney has seemed ready to cruise to an inevitable victory, his failure to connect with grass-roots voters has dealt him setbacks. It may be that more Michiganders thought Romney looked silly speaking to a tiny crowd in cavernous Ford Field or found his comment about his wife’s Cadillac collection off-putting than paid attention to Santorum’s swipes at John F. Kennedy. But no matter what the explanation, Romney’s well-oiled organization and party establishment support will need to turn out the vote for him tomorrow lest he be dealt a devastating setback.

The main takeaway from a bruising Michigan primary may be that even if Romney prevails in a state that many thought would be in his pocket, his difficulty in closing the deal with conservatives will affect his long-range prospects. As a result of an increasingly bitter fight, Santorum and Romney have suffered setbacks in terms of their appeal to independents. Though a win by any margin in the state where he was born would be welcome for Romney, any outcome that gives hope to Santorum to keep fighting will not be helpful to his prospects in November.

That’s because no matter who loses in Michigan there is the possibility that due to the state’s delegate allocation rules that treat each congressional district as a separate entity, the loser may end up the winner in terms of delegates. As the New York Times’s Nate Silver explains, the GOP’s fuzzy delegate math makes the outcome of a protracted and close race difficult to predict. The longer the Republican race lasts, the weaker the eventual winner will be. Which means that absent a big Romney win tomorrow in Michigan, the GOP will be mired in a nasty internecine war for weeks, if not months, to come.



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