When you measure it against the absolute panic that surrounded his campaign in the 48 hours before polls closed, Mitt Romney’s night couldn’t have gone any better on Tuesday.
The final surveys in Michigan had shown his lead over Rick Santorum melting away, and the GOP race seemed on the verge of a type of uncertainty and chaos never before seen in a modern nominating contest. Previous Republican and Democratic front-runners had faced crises like the one Romney’s Colorado/Minnesota/Missouri meltdown triggered earlier this month. But every one of them had bounced back and won the next contest, putting their campaigns back on track and ending the talk of brokered conventions and white knight candidates. It looked like Romney might be the first to fall short.
So the simple fact that he managed to win Michigan is cause for a huge sigh of relief for Romney. In victory, he’ll be spared what would have been days of truly hellish press coverage – headlines about defecting donors, vanishing coffers, cratering poll numbers, and terrified party leaders scrambling for a new candidate. The effect might have been devastating. Instead, Romney got to deliver a victory speech, and at a relatively early hour too, thanks to his solid margin of victory. And that margin, 3 points, feels a lot bigger right now, given how many people expected Romney to lose.
The bottom line is that Romney won a victory he absolutely had to have. And thanks to his unsurprising win in Arizona Tuesday night, he’s opened up a sizable lead in the delegate race (even if the vast majority of delegates have yet to be awarded). He remains the Republican front-runner.
That said, the Michigan results hardly represent an emphatic answer to the question of whether the Tea Party-era Republican Party is ready to rally around the former Massachusetts governor. This was his native state, as everyone knows by now, a place he won in 2008 and a state that was always expected to be a Romney state this time around, until the last few weeks.
So when you consider his built-in advantages, the money he poured into the state, the attacks he leveled against Santorum, and the dreadful debate performance Santorum turned in last week, Romney’s 3-point margin seems a lot less impressive. This was not like Florida, where Romney utterly decimated his chief foe (Newt Gingrich) and posted a lopsided victory. This was a must-win state that Romney threw everything he had at … and managed to win by just 3 points – apparently with a big boost from early voters, many of whom cast their ballots before Santorum surged into contention.
This suggests that Romney may not get much of a bounce out of Michigan – and that he could find himself in big trouble again one week from now on Super Tuesday. The biggest state to vote that day is Ohio, a big Midwest state culturally and demographically similar to Michigan. The latest poll in the Buckeye State, released early on Tuesday, gives Santorum an 11-point lead over Romney, 37 to 26 percent. Maybe those numbers will tighten in the wake of Michigan, but Romney is going to have to fight for it.
And then there’s the South, with contests in Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma set for next Tuesday. Romney’s chances in these states range from distant to nonexistent. The evangelical voters who dominate Republican politics in these states have been more resistant to Romney than any other voters in the country. His Mormon faith surely has a lot to do with this, as do his Yankee background and moderate reputation.
Romney was blown out in Oklahoma and Tennessee four years ago and finished a close third in Georgia. His best hope this time around is for Santorum and Newt Gingrich – who represented Georgia in the House and who will be kept afloat for the next week by another Sheldon Adelson check – to split the evangelical vote, creating an opening for Romney either to win or at least make it look respectable. But Santorum’s strong (if not quite strong enough) showing in Michigan may make it tough to Gingrich to regain traction. If it’s mainly a Romney-Santorum race in the South next week, Santorum could post some very big wins.
So while the GOP didn’t venture into uncharted territory Tuesday night, we might find ourselves wondering if it’s about to all over again just a week from now.