Why did Obama win the Michigan primary?

So what do we make of last night’s primaries in Michigan and Arizona? As in most things political, the “win” is in the eye of the beholder… and what we’re beholding is media framing and campaign spinning. As I was reading news about the races this morning, a Facebook post from my old fraternity brother Jeff Moulton caught my eye. He posted,


The game of political “spin” is an interesting spectator sport. For example, right now on my Yahoo news feed is the following headline – “Battered and bruised, Romney is limping toward the nomination”. Fair enough. The very next article has this for a title – “Romney roars back with two big wins.”

Hmmm… those are two rather different narratives — and it’s likely that each of the candidates, especially Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, have one that they prefer.

Here’s one that isn’t being widely reported this morning, but I think is worth considering: Last night’s big winner was President Barack Obama. Why? Let’s check out the numbers and the spin to see why.



First, let’s dispense with the Arizona results, as they will prove to be less consequential for the long game, even though it’s a bigger win for Romney. Here’s how the AP reports the vote:







This is a sizable win: a winner-take-all contest in which Romney earns all 29 available delegates (it would have been more, but Arizona was penalized by the Republican National Committee for their pre-March primary date, as was Florida). But this win was no surprise… the pundits have been predicting a decisive showing for Romney in Arizona for some time now. This is not just due to the strong presence of Mormon voters in the state (the key variable most is the media emphasize… ironically marginalizing Romney as “the Mormon candidate” in the process), but also due to strong endorsements by most of the state’s party leaders and the relative importance of home foreclosure economics and Medicare for the state’s core voting constituencies.

This victory bodes well for Romney, as Arizona is a conservative state that would appear to favor the Republican presidential candidate this year. That said, it is notable that Obama’s campaign reads Arizona as a potentially winnable swing state this year. They signaled as much when the President visited Arizona after his State of the Union address to capitalize on the state’s political volatility due to economic distress. So, while a longer shot than some, Arizona might well be in play come November if Romney doesn’t generate national enthusiasm sometime soon.

And that brings us to Michigan.







Romney tried to capitalize on the night after his dual wins as best he could:

Thank you Michigan. What a win — this is a big night! . . . We didn’t win by a lot, but we won by enough, and that’s all that counts!

I’m not sure he’s right. Romney was born in Detroit; his father was an auto executive who became the governor of the state. But any “favorite son” appeal he might have had was likely squandered in 2008 when he wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times entitled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” Add to this his shaky appeal to the conservative base and his growing media persona as a wealthy financier out of touch with working people and the poor, and Romney’s shoulda-killed-it Michigan primary resulted in a three point win over Santorum (and a likely even distribution of delegates between the two) despite outspending him 3-2 in TV advertising alone.

How has the vote been headlined this morning? Here’s some samples:

  • “Mitt Romney averts disaster in Michigan primary” (Los Angeles Times
  • “Mitt Romney survives Michigan primary, looks to Super Tuesday” (Washington Post)
  • Romney ekes out win in Michigan GOP primary, breezes in Arizona contest (Nashua Telegraph)
  • “Romney squeaks by in Michigan” (Politico)
  • “Mitt Romney captured Republican loyalists in Michigan primary 2012 win” (Huffington Post)
  • “Michigan could be Romney’s Battle of the Bulge” (National Journal)
  • “Romney rights his political ship; Romney gains momentum” (Wall Street Journal)
  • “Why the Michigan primary means momentum for Mitt Romney” (Washington Post)
  • “Romney Quiets Critics With Michigan Primary Win” (Mother Jones)
  • “Primary results: Will Romney’s Michigan, Arizona wins restore aura of inevitability?” (Christian Science Monitor)

The media narrative is all over the place — as is reasonable, given the diversity of the media sources (at least in the blogosphere) commenting on an ambiguous phenomenon like campaign politics.

It’s clearly too soon to tell whether the Michigan win will be important for the upcoming Super Tuesday primary sweepstakes, but the short answer may be “meh, not so much.” Ten states will hold primaries and caucuses on March 6, with 437 Republican delegates up for grabs. But in most of the contests the votes will be divvied up proportionally based on the results of the state vote, and the demographics and political dynamics of the ten states open doors for different candidates at different times:

  • Romney: Something’s massively wrong if he doesn’t win Massachusetts (home state), Vermont (next door to home state, not as socially conservative), and Virginia (only he and Ron Paul are on the ballot, and Paul is underfinanced and can’t capture cultural conservatives);
  • Santorum: Will make his play as the social conservative “not-Romney” in the south and west (Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Idaho), including Georgia (where a surprise win over Newt Gingrich would end the former Speaker’s campaign);
  • Paul: Most probably won’t win anywhere, but looks to pick up delegates in caucus states where he usually excels (Alaska, Idaho, North Dakota), as well as second-place shots in Virginia and Vermont where the social conservatives are either not on the ballot or not competitive
  • Gingrich: will make heavy plays for the south and west, especially Georgia (home state — if he doesn’t win there, he will almost assuredly drop out of the race), Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Idaho.

The Super Tuesday state to watch is Ohio, as it has the second-biggest delegate prize (66, 10 less than Georgia), but is a perennial swing state in the general election, and a state with a wide variety of Republican voters that appeal to a a variety of different economic and cultural conservative messages. But the three big tickets on Super Tuesday — Georgia, Ohio, and Tennessee — are all close calls, and all will provide delegates proportionally, so it’s a safe bet that neither Romney nor Santorum will come out of March 6 with an inevitable trajectory to the nomination.

But is there a bigger picture for Romney? And what does this have to do with President Obama?

According to exit poll results reported by this morning’s New York Times,

As has been the case in every contest with exit polls so far this year, the top issue was the economy. More than half of the voters in Michigan chose the economy as their most important issue, while about a quarter cited the federal budget deficit. Mr. Romney won nearly half of these voters.

These exit polls make the Denizens wonder: What does it say about the current state of GOP primary voters that, in a state hit as hard by the economic downturn as Michigan, the top issue is the economy by only “more than half?” Are Michigan Republicans actually reflective of general election Michigan voters? (We’re guessing no.) It is clear that, if there is a path to Romney winning the Republican nomination, it ironically involves diluting his focus on the economy to tilt right on social issues like immigration, contraception and abortion at a time when American voters are keenly interested in the economy.

Which brings us to last night’s real winner: President Barack Obama.

As the Denizens have previously discussed, the gradual upswing of the economy in general and the auto industry in particular have benefited Obama just as Romney has faltered in his primary campaign. Part of Romney’s missteps have been an apparent tone-deafness with regard to growing national perceptions of income inequality. This lack of empathy was evidence just recently in in a fumbled attempt to connect with the Detroit auto industry culture in a speech last Friday (emphasis added).

This feels good, being back in Michigan . . . You know, the trees are the right height. The streets are just right. I like the fact that most of the cars I see are Detroit-made automobiles. I drive a Mustang and a Chevy pickup truck. Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs, actually. And I used to have a Dodge truck, so I used to have all three [Detroit carmakers] covered.

So, four family cars, including two Cadillacs for the wife alone. Two days later, while visiting the Daytona 500 (as did Santorum, incidentally), Romney was asked if he followed racing. His response, as reported by the AP (emphasis added):

Not as closely as some of the most ardent fans, but I have some friends who are NASCAR team owners.

These two statements got lots of play prior to the primary, highlighting Romney’s media persona as a wealthy, out-of-touch elitist.

Meanwhile, on primary day, Obama visited the United Auto Workers conference in Washington. While Press Secretary Jay Carney insisted yesterday that the speech Obama presented, an official White House event, was “not at all” campaigning, the repeated denials were not fooling the news media, who reported on the event with car metaphor-encrusted headlines like these:

  • “President Obama hits campaign speed in UAW speech” (Washington Post)
  • “President in driver’s seat at UAW” (MSNBC)
  • “Obama revs up oratory, reminding autoworkers of bailout” (New York Times)

Republicans decried the speech as a transparently campaign-connected event (and they’re right… c’mon, Jay, it was) and, in the words of RNC spokesperson Kirsten Kukowski, “an insider deal for his union cronies who got billions in bailout money and are now backing Obama’s re-election campaign.” But other adjectives used to describe the speech in the blogosphere since yesterday depict a passionate“, “fiery,” “epic” “barn-burner, in which Obama dings and slams Republicans, particularly Romney (albeit implicitly).

The media commentary gets it about right: Obama’s declamation was reminiscent of his strongest oratory during the 2008 campaign — not in the sense of eloquent imagery and figuration, but in the sense of energizing emotional button-pushing and populist identity construction. The delivery style is relaxed and engaging, yet passionate and forceful, preferring conversational audience connection over rehearsed precision. And he goes after his political opponents with both guns blazing, tracing out what is sure to be the dominant rhetorical frame for his re-election campaign.

Because I’ve got to admit, it’s been funny to watch some of these politicians completely rewrite history now that you’re back on your feet. These are the folks who said if we went forward with our plan to rescue Detroit, “you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye.” Now they’re saying they were right all along. Or worse, they’re saying that the problem is that you, the workers, made out like bandits in all of this; that saving the American auto industry was just about paying back unions. Really? Even by the standards of this town, that’s a load of you-know-what. About 700,000 retirees saw a reduction in the health care benefits they had earned. Many of you saw hours reduced, or pay and wages scaled back. You gave up some of your rights as workers. Promises were made to you over the years that you gave up for the sake and survival of this industry, its workers, and their families. You want to talk about values? Hard work – that’s a value. Looking out for one another – that’s a value. The idea that we’re all in it together – that I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper – that is a value.

But they’re still talking about you as if you’re some greedy special interest that needs to be beaten. Since when are hardworking men and women special interests? Since when is the idea that we look out for each other a bad thing? To borrow a line from our old friend Ted Kennedy: what is it about working men and women they find so offensive?

While colloquial in presentation style (this is the first presidential address I’ve examined that has used “a load of you-know-what” as a political rebuttal), the speech is carefully crafted to emphasize Obama’s economic and moral vision, and even revisits his lauded 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address — reminding his audience of his rhetorical power and his rapid rise to national prominence — through the line “I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper.” He also rearticulates the auto bailout (widely panned by Republicans) as consistent with a policy philosophy that transforms “big government socialism” into “looking out for one another.” Later in the speech he amplifies this point (emphasis added):

We will not settle for a country where a few people do really well, and everyone else struggles to get by. We’re fighting for an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules. We will not go back to an economy weakened by outsourcing, bad debt, and phony profits. We’re fighting for an economy that’s built to last – one built on things like education, energy, manufacturing things the rest of the world wants to buy, and restoring the values that made this country great: Hard work. Fair play. The opportunity to make it if you try. And the responsibility to reach back and help someone else make it, too. That’s who we are. That’s what we believe in.

In a manner consistent with his rhetoric since his Osawotamie, Kansas speech on the economy and his State of the Union address earlier this year, Obama is embracing the issue of income inequality and an ethic of working-class populism in a year when the economy is the core issue, and when the outlook for employment and financial stability seems to be improving rather than declining.

And he does so at the same time that Romney loses what once would have been his prime moment to seal the deal on an inevitable nomination, due in no small degree to his rhetorical fumbling of the symbolic and material realities of today’s American economy. Romney will be the Republican nominee, but on the fulcrum point of the general election he’s already on the losing side.

And that’s why President Obama won the Michigan primary.


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