Romney’s Home Field Advantage—Is It Real?

by Jonathan Cohn | February 15, 2012

Mitt Romney is on the air in Michigan, with an advertisement that plays up his ties to the state. “I grew up in Michigan,” Romney says. “I remember going to the Detroit auto show with my dad, that was a big deal.” Then, after cataloguing the state’s problems and the damage President Obama has supposedly done, Romney returns to the favorite son theme. “Michigan’s been my home. And this is personal.” The ad follows Tuesday’s op-ed in the Detroit News, which opened with the line “I am a son of Detroit.”

It’s true: Romney grew up in Michigan. And thanks primarily to his father, the car executive turned governor, the Romney name means something here. But does that mean voters will care? Does Mitt really have a home field advantage? 

One big reason to be skeptical is a new poll from Public Policy Polling. Like every other survey of the last few days, it showed Romney trailing Rick Santorum. But the real news was a finding about how Michiganders view their would-be favorite son:

Only 26% of primary voters actually consider him to be a Michigander while 62% do not. Only 39% have a favorable opinion of George Romney with a 46% plurality having no opinion about him.

Those numbers reminded me of the first time I saw Romney speak here.

It was in 2007, at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, where Romney announced his first bid for the presidency. Campaign staff had billed it as a homecoming and the atmospherics were perfect: Right next to the podium was an old Rambler, the car his father’s company once produced. But what sticks out about that event, even now, was the anemic reception Romney got. No more than a few hundred people attended, and that included a busload or two (or maybe three) of schoolchildren, who appeared to be attending as a civic exercise. The audience was supportive, for sure, but the applause was more perfunctory than enthusiastic.

It’s not hard to imagine why Romney’s ties might mean so little. He hasn’t lived in the state since the late 1960s, right around the time his father stepped down as governor. Since that time, as far as I know, only one Romney has held public office: Mitt’s older brother Scott, who served as a trustee for Michigan State Univeristy from 2000 to 2008. During that same time span, the Romney family actually lost as many elections as it won: Lenore Romney, the family matriarch, lost badly when she ran for the Senate in 1970. Scott’s bid to be attorney general in 1998 failed, as did his bid for another term as MSU trustee in 2008.

Really, the only Romney to win a major* statewide election in the last 40 years was Mitt. And that was in Massachusetts.

Still, strategists and analysts here aren’t so quick to dismiss Romney’s advantage. “People are pooh-poohing those poll numbers, because only 26 percent in that one survey said they considered him from Michigan,” says consultant Steve Mitchell. “But no voters think that about Santorum, Gingrich, or Ron Paul. So another way to think about that is that one in four voters think he has some connection to Michigan—and that gives him some sort of home field advantage.”

John Truscott, a longtime Republican strategist and operative, agrees. “I don’t think it’s enough to put him over the top, but it’s going to help. There are still a lot of people around who have very fond memories of his father.”

More important than the Romney family name may be the Romney family’s ties, particularly among the state’s elite. “It’s clearly given him an advantage raising money and gaining endorsements,” Mitchell says. “He’s got a large portion of the state’s Republican delegation, untold numbers of statewide or local officials, and those endorsements will help.” By all accounts, Romney also has a stronger campaign organization than his rivals, although how much that reflects Mitt's ties to the state is hard to say.

So a home field advantage for Mitt? Yeah, he probably has one. But it’s a far cry from the Big House.

*Scott Romney did win election to MSU Trustee before losing re-election, but I'm not sure that counts as a major statewide race.

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