Reviewing the exit poll data from last night’s primaries in Arizona and Michigan – which National Journal’s Ron Brownstein does with typical care and insight — it appears as if several things happened. Mitt Romney did well with demographic groups with which he’s done well in the past: voters who are white collar, upper income, college educated, non-evangelical Christians and somewhat conservative/moderate. For example, Romney beat Rick Santorum by roughly 20 percentage points in Oakland County, a white collar suburb outside of Detroit. Among self-identified Republicans in Michigan, Romney beat Santorum by an impressive 13 points (49 percent v. 36 percent).
Rick Santorum, on the other hand, did well, though not great, with people who consider themselves very conservative and who identify themselves as evangelical Christians. But where Santorum was hurt the most was with blue collar voters. He lost to Romney in Macomb County, a white working class suburb outside of Detroit, and barely won in Genesse Country, which incorporates the blue collar city of Flint. In Michigan, Santorum lost to Romney among Catholics (45 v. 37) and women (42 v. 37, including every category of women polled, including working women, single women, and married women). In Arizona in particular, but also in Michigan, Santorum simply was not able to cobble together a coalition that went much beyond the core of the GOP base.
The result of this is that Romney has taken another important (if difficult) step to the nomination. Brownstein writes that while turning points have come and gone in this turbulent GOP race, “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.”
If so, Santorum may live to regret his blistering attack on John F. Kennedy’s speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association (the one that almost caused Santorum to vomit) and his widely perceived assault on a college education (accusing President Obama of being a “snob” for encouraging people to go to college). At the most important moment in Santorum’s run for the presidency, when Republicans were willing to give him a fresh second look, he confirmed many of the impressions his critics have of him – that he’s a moralizing figure who sets people on edge rather than puts them at ease. It’s a shame, because Santorum is a man of many impressive parts. But one cannot also help but think the former Pennsylvania senator, who is nothing if not authentic, spoke what was in his heart.
A man like Santorum can play a valuable role in a society and a political movement. Few people in American public life are as willing as Santorum to tether political arguments to moral truths. But on the biggest stage of his life, with a chance for the nomination within his grasp, he simply wasn’t able to summon forth rhetoric that conveyed both moral seriousness and a spirit of grace and winsomeness.
The final word on this part of the contest goes to Romney, who said he didn’t win by a lot, but he won by enough.