Is Michigan moving to Mitt?

Published 3:06 pm Friday, July 20, 2012

Is Michigan about to flip for Mitt?

Let’s stipulate that by the word flip we are not talking about heedless somersaults of ecstasy. This is not that kind of place, and Mitt Romney is not that kind of candidate.

Michigan is not particularly flighty. Up north they take their fishing so seriously they pursue it in forbidding wintry conditions. In Ann Arbor and East Lansing, the gridiron game is played with stern, nearly religious devotion. No one doubts that, despite its resurgence, there aren’t many laughs in the auto industry these days, and the state of Detroit is no laughing matter.

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But suddenly Republicans are feeling good about Michigan. Not giddy, mind you. Just a bit optimistic.

It now seems clear that if the GOP wins Michigan, it won’t necessarily win the fall election — but if Romney wins the election, he will very likely win Michigan. That makes for difficult political choices for campaign strategists.

This state is, above all, a place of great loyalty and consistency, and herein lies the Romney opening for 2012.

Consider this: For the last five elections, Michigan voted for the Democratic presidential nominee. For the five elections prior to that, Michigan voted for the Republican nominee. Go back three more, and all the elections went to the Democrat. Go back another three, and they’re all Republican years.

Connecticut used to be considered the state of steady habits. It turns out that in the last 16 elections, the Nutmeg state voted exactly the way Michigan did: in a 5-5-3-3 pattern that sounds a lot like the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty ratios that limited the capital ships great powers could deploy. Connecticut is reliably Democratic this political season, but not so Michigan.

Politics is not prescriptive, of course, so this doesn’t mean that a big switch (which is to say a pigment change to Republican red in November) is inevitable here. It just means that Michigan almost certainly is more in play this year than it was in 2008, when the economy was crashing, the auto industry was on life support and Barack Obama won the state by about 824,000 votes.

Now, to the loyalty element. Romney may have been governor of Massachusetts and a principal figure in salvaging the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Utah, but his inner compass points to Michigan, where he was reared and where his father was the chief of American Motors and a successful governor.

The Romney name still resonates here, and if you mention it many will think you’re referring to the father. George W. Romney still is revered by those of a certain age. Mitt Romney may be the beneficiary. That is not without precedent in presidential politics, and the evidence can be summed up with two names: Franklin Roosevelt and George W. Bush.

Like so many places, the economy is the major issue here. Only 11 states have a higher unemployment rate than Michigan, where it remains stubbornly at 8.5 percent. In the classic battleground state, Ohio, unemployment is substantially lower, at 7.3 percent. These are not the kind of political entrails that give comfort to an incumbent party.

Obama’s camp believes the president’s auto bailout will help bail him out here in November. His supporters happily point out that General Motors and Chrysler have defied the naysayers and enjoyed a robust rebound — and they pound home the point that Romney opposed Obama’s intervention.

Autoworkers have legendary long memories and strong loyalties, but there are fewer of them than there once were. One consequence of the decades-long crisis of the carmakers is that unionized workers in automobile plants and related industries constitute a smaller part of the voting base than they did when the great labor leader Walter Reuther ruled Detroit, was a major figure in Democratic politics and for a time met weekly with President Lyndon B. Johnson.

That was long ago. Beginning in 1972, the Republicans, assisted by the prominence of Gerald R. Ford of Grand Rapids, began their two-decade dominance of the state. There’s ample evidence to suggest that Michigan’s recent dalliance with the Democrats is ending and that a Republican resurgence is nigh.

Rural Republicans are angrier (very) than urban Democrats are content (hardly). The balance of power for the state’s 16 electoral votes is in the suburbs, which this year may not be where the Obama team would like to fight for survival, particularly given the success there of GOP Gov. Rick Snyder in his election battle two years ago.

Today all three branches of state government are firmly in Republican hands. The Real Clear Politics poll average that for weeks gave Obama a lead of 14 percentage points in Michigan now shows him hanging on to a lead of less than 2 percentage points. If an $85 billion auto bailout was worth a measly 2-point advantage, then what can a president with less than four months before Election Day do to save himself here and in places like it, such as Wisconsin and Minnesota?

Romney, who once said, inscrutably, that he liked Michigan because its trees are “the right height,” hasn’t always emphasized his roots. But since competing here in the primaries — he defeated former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania by 3 percentage points — he has repeatedly reminded voters of his Michigan childhood.

“I grew up in Michigan, as you know, born and raised here,” he said in the tourist town of Frankenmuth a month ago, “and if I’m lucky enough to become president, I’ll be the first president in American history to be born in Michigan.” (Gerald Ford, generally regarded as the first Michigan president, was born in Nebraska.)

But measuring the impact of Romney’s Michigan roots isn’t easy. Nearly three-fifths of the state’s population has no real memory of the gubernatorial years of Romney’s father. But they may know the elder Romney was perhaps the dominant Republican of the postwar era and the spiritual father of the Rambler automobile.

Even so, the election here may come down to this unlikely question, dangerous to Democrats, alluring to Republicans: Is being the son of the man behind the 1963 Motor Trend Car of the Year enough to win the White House?

(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)