Another race, another winner. The scramble at the top of the Republican heap in the race to lock down the presidential nomination welcomed former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney on Tuesday night (January 15), as he cruised to a projected victory over Senator John McCain. On the Democratic side, the results weren’t significant, as the party had stripped Michigan of its delegates.
Romney — who grew up in the state, where his father, George, was a General Motors chairman and three-term governor — is projected to have won with roughly 39 percent of the vote, while McCain is expected to have pulled in 30 percent. Romney, who campaigned hard in Michigan and banked on a win there to help revitalize his campaign, squared off against McCain, who won in Michigan in 2000 during his last presidential run. In the days leading up to the pivotal contest, Romney’s apparent lead had diminished in most polls to the point where he was nearly in a dead heat with the Arizona senator.
The primary was seen as a last-ditch hope for Romney — who had only scored a win in the party’s less-crucial Wyoming caucus — or a chance for McCain to solidify his lead. The results further muddied the Republican race that is still without a dominant front-runner. The GOP contest has been more fluid than the Democratic battle, which has already settled into essentially a two-person contest between New York Senator Hillary Clinton and Illinois Senator Barack Obama, who won the New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucus, respectively.
And though nothing comes easy these days for Clinton, on Tuesday — with the rest of her major Democratic opponents sitting out of the Michigan primary due to a squabble with the Democratic National Committee over the state’s decision to move its primary up on the calendar — she cruised to an easy victory.
Looking bright-eyed and pumped-up, and having discarded his suit jacket, Romney — who would be the country’s first Mormon president if elected — took to a packed stage less than 20 minutes after the last polls closed in Michigan to give a rousing speech.
“Tonight marks the beginning of a comeback, a comeback for America,” he said to wild applause. “Only a week ago, a win looked like it was impossible, but then you got out and told America what they needed to hear. … Tonight proves that you can’t tell an American that there’s something they just can’t do, because Americans can do anything they set their heart to.
“Tonight is a victory of optimism over Washington-style pessimism,” he added, a line that was perhaps intended as a slap at the many commentators who suggested Romney was done for in the race for the White House. “Tonight we are celebrating here in Michigan, [and] guess what they’re doing in Washington? They’re worrying. The lobbyists and politicians realize that Washington is broken and we’re going to do something about it!”
Unlike New Hampshire, which benefited from balmy weather and record turnout, voters appear to have mostly stayed home in Michigan. Just hours before polls closed, the Detroit Free Press reported that due to combination of snowstorms and the non-race on the Democratic side, turnout was so low across Detroit and the rest of the state that some clerks predicted the majority of votes would come from absentee ballots. One city-elections leader said turnout could be as low as 15-20 percent. The low turnout, especially among Democrats and independents — who many predicted could mostly go McCain’s way — helped Romney beat the Arizona senator by a projected 10 percentage points. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee was projected at a distant third with 16 percent of the vote.
Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, where candidates focused on issues ranging from immigration to Iraq, the main topic of discussion in Michigan, which has the nation’s highest unemployment rate at 7.4 percent, was jobs and the economy. Romney, who placed second in Iowa and New Hampshire to, respectively, Huckabee and McCain, vowed before voters went to the polls to continue his campaign even if he failed to win Tuesday night.
Even so, the contest was positioned as do-or-die for the Romney campaign, which used the memory of the candidate’s father as an emotional pull to get voters to give the candidate his first major win. The former Massachusetts governor had been running ads in Michigan since January 2006, spending more than $2 million on more than 2,555 spots, according to CNN, versus the $359,000 for less than 360 spots by McCain. This week, Romney’s campaign announced that it was pulling ads in upcoming primary states Florida and South Carolina to devote more resources to the all-important Michigan contest.
Romney, who won the little-noticed Wyoming caucus January 5, promised in speeches this week that as president he would ease recently raised fuel-efficiency standards and spend billions to help struggling Detroit automakers, while McCain delivered more of his patented “straight talk,” telling the state’s citizens about such unpopular-with-most-Republicans stands as not drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and vowing never to allow torture. McCain also reiterated his belief that traditional auto-manufacturing jobs were not coming back to Michigan and that business leaders should focus on green technologies and the future.
Romney spent the past few days taking swipes at McCain for his comments that more than 300,000 jobs in Michigan are permanently lost and must be replaced by exploring new technologies, promising that if he won he would not rest until the state’s beleaguered economic fortunes were turned around.
The superstitious McCain, who The New York Times reported wore on Tuesday the same green sweater he said brought him luck in New Hampshire last week, was hoping to prove his electability by getting a significant number of votes from Independents and Democrats. He had already moved on to South Carolina before the polls closed and good-naturedly quipped in his concession speech that, “for a minute there, I thought this campaign was going to get easier. We don’t mind a fight, and we’re in it.”
The focus for most of the Democrats was elsewhere this week, as no convention delegates were at stake because of the national party’s decision to strip the state of its 156 delegates to the national convention. The move was due to the Michigan Democratic Party’s insistence on pushing up its primary before February 5 to get more attention in the wake of the Iowa-New Hampshire one-two punch.
Both Obama and former Senator John Edwards took their names off the ballot, leaving Clinton to battle such long shots as former Senator Mike Gravel and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich. In what pollsters said was a sign of voter discontent with the Democratic National Committee’s decision to strip the state of its delegates, CNN reported that Clinton won Tuesday night despite a majority of young voters choosing “uncommitted,” according to exit polls. Among voters ages 18-29, 48 percent chose uncommitted, while Clinton tallied just 39 percent of the vote among that age group, which her campaign has begun to heavily court since her win in New Hampshire.
The exit polling also showed that 46 percent of those ages 30-44 also went with uncommitted. Overall, Clinton carried 55 percent of the vote, while 40 percent were uncommitted. In what could be a troubling sign, CNN also reported that nearly 70 percent of Michigan’s black voters did not choose Clinton, instead going for uncommitted, though they would have overwhelmingly voted for Obama had he been on the ballot.
While the top three Republicans slugged it out at the polls, Democrats moved on to Las Vegas for a debate in advance of Saturday’s Nevada caucuses, which, for Republicans, will coincide with their primary in South Carolina.
[This story was originally published at 10:07 p.m. ET on 01.15.08]