THE STUMP FEBRUARY 16, 2012
A question: Does it matter who wins the upcoming Michigan primary? I can only foresee two scenarios in which it does: First, if Romney were to lose to Santorum decisively, one could imagine the GOP establishment waking up the next morning and scouring the country for a white-knight alternative. At that point all hell breaks loose, and you and I are as likely to be the GOP nominee as Mitt Romney.
Alternatively, if Romney were to beat Santorum decisively, finally making inroads among the conservatives that have eluded him all primary-season long, one could imagine the party pretty quickly consolidating behind him. In that case, he could effectively lock up the nomination on Super Tuesday and turn to the general election.
But I don’t think either of these scenarios is very likely. Michigan is Romney’s home state, after all, meaning he probably starts with some sort of floor. Meanwhile, he’s likely to outspend Santorum by a margin of 3-to-1 or 40-to-1 or 1,700-to-1, depending on which reports you believe. So it’s hard to imagine Santorum getting too much daylight on him.
On the other hand, the polls—both in Michigan and elsewhere—have consistently shown deep conservative skepticism toward Romney. I have a hard time imagining him dispelling it between now and February 28, notwithstanding his recent claim to have suffered from severe conservatism (covered under Obamacare, fortunately).
Which leaves two probable scenarios: Either a single-digit Romney loss or a single-digit Romney win. If it’s the former, the GOP establishment will no doubt wake up on February 29 with persistent indigestion. But it’ll just be a slightly more advanced form of the same malady they’ve been suffering since South Carolina. I doubt it’ll be acute enough for them to want to blow things up and place all their chips on the next Rick Perry (which is to say, an untested candidate who looks good on paper but could easily self-destruct). In that case, we’re almost certainly still looking at a long, ugly slog to the nomination for Romney.
And if Romney wins by single-digits, it won’t be because the party has suddenly decided he’s a dreamboat, but because he deployed his millions to make mincemeat out of yet another conservative challenger. In that case, the only thing we’ll have learned from Michigan is that Romney can win when he presses his financial advantage, but not when he doesn’t, which of course we already knew. We’ll still be looking at a long, ugly slog to the nomination because—as we saw last week in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado—Romney is likely to lose again the second he eases up on his opponents, something a de facto nominee typically prefers to do in the spirit of party unity, and so that he looks big and confident heading into the general election.
So my guess is that Michigan changes nothing. Win or lose for Romney, we’ll still be stuck in the same pattern: Romney pulls out victories when he spends a lot of money and when the demographics tilt in his favor (i.e., proportionately fewer conservatives and more affluent people), and loses when he either doesn’t spend enough money or the demographics aren’t sufficiently in his favor. Unfortunately for Romney and the GOP, that’s a hell of a depressing way to win a presidential nomination.
Update: One clarification--I was using "single-digit" loss or victory as a short-hand for a "narrow" loss or victory. But, as some commenters have pointed out, an 8- or 9-point margin is still pretty big. Let's call it 5-6 points in either direction, then. The operative term here is "decisive," and I don't anything in that range would qualify. But I also think the final result is overwhelmingly likely to fall in that range (it's my own personal 90-percent confidence interval).
follow me on Twitter: @noamscheiber