Southfield, Michigan – Tony Paskus is an engineer with Ford Motor Company, born and raised in Michigan, and he doesn’t hesitate for a moment when asked why he voted for Mitt Romney. “I’m turning selfish this election,” Paskus tells me as we wait for Romney to make a victory speech at the Embassy Suites Hotel here in suburban Southfield. “I’m very selfish this time. I want somebody who will take care of Michigan.”
“Everybody’s been ignoring us,” Paskus continues. “The Senate, Congress in general, even our president has been ignoring us. And we’re hurting. So this is our best chance of somebody at least paying attention to what’s going on here.”
That somebody is Romney. And if you multiply those sentiments by a few hundred thousand, you have what happened in Michigan Tuesday. Michigan, suffering from high unemployment and general economic decline — they call it a “one-state recession” here — wants help. Romney promised more of it than anyone else.
When rival John McCain said — probably correctly — that some of the state’s lost automotive jobs wouldn’t come back, Romney answered, “Baloney.” He also promised the auto industry $20 billion in federal investment, along with relief from mileage standards and burdensome employee health-care costs. Looked at from the voter’s perspective, one candidate, McCain, offered Michiganders little understanding — the Michigan equivalent of McCain’s opposition to ethanol subsidies in Iowa — while the other, Romney, promised to throw them a life preserver. The guy with the life preserver won.
After Iowa, where he unsuccessfully tried to portray himself as far more socially conservative than he was just a few years ago, and New Hampshire, where he quickly re-cast himself as the candidate of change, Romney finally found the formula in Michigan. He presented himself as the man with the business experience and the fundamental understanding of the local economy — “I’ve got cars in my bloodstream,” he said the day before the election — to fix Michigan’s problems. Nobody else came close, and Romney picked up a nine-percentage-point victory over McCain, 39 to 30.
What’s not clear is whether Michigan voters bought all of Romney’s pitch, or just part of it. Were they swayed by the Washington-is-broken-I’m-the-man-to-change-it appeal, or did they just respond to his offers of assistance? No one really knows. “He did a very good job talking to the people of Michigan,” Saul Anuzis, head of the state Republican party, tells me. “He made people feel that he understood the issues that are affecting people here.”
But conditions in Michigan are, by general agreement, somewhat singular — “We’re the only state in the country that has lost jobs five years in a row that hasn’t been hit by a hurricane,” Anuzis says. Will the campaign strategy, built heavily on Romney’s personal connection with the auto industry, that worked in a state with a “one-state recession” also work in other states in different condition?
That’s a question for later. Right now, Romney has found his theme as the outsider who is going to fix the failures of Washington. “Tonight marks the beginning of a comeback, a comeback for America,” Romney tells the crowd in the tiny room where he had scheduled his victory celebration. (Was the campaign, disappointed before, being overly cautious in site selection, choosing a location that would look crowded even if few people showed up? “The pessimists must have chosen this room,” says one Romney supporter jammed into the space.)
Romney’s full-fledged outsiderdom will mean changes in his campaign style. For one thing, it will probably force him to become more critical of George W. Bush. In speeches, he sometimes mentions that Bush has kept the country safe from terrorist attack for six years, but he says it in an at-least-let’s-give-him-that kind of way, not as a show of overall support. From the victory podium, Romney sends a clear message that from now on, he’s willing to ignore pretty much everything else when it comes to the president. “I take my inspiration from Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush, who took their inspiration from the American people,” he says. “Ronald Reagan, George Herbert Walker Bush said we are a great and good people, and it’s exactly what we are.” Romney is all for President Bush, just not the one who’s in the White House.
Traveling to Michigan, I ran into a person on the Romney team who explained the way Romney’s aides interpreted the results of Iowa and New Hampshire. Voters there didn’t want to toss a vulnerable major contender out of the race, the strategist explained. In Iowa, they didn’t want to kick Mike Huckabee out, or Barack Obama, either. In New Hampshire, they didn’t want to send John McCain to an early exit, or Hillary Clinton either. The strategist believed that Michigan voters would do the same thing with Romney, would say that there’s no reason he should be out of the race. And they did.
But it was more than that. In Michigan, Romney made a personal offer of help. He understands the auto industry better than any other candidate, and he is more willing than the others to come up with federal programs to solve, or attempt to solve, its problems. Beleaguered voters got the message. “He’s our best chance,” Tony Paskus tells me. “All I know is that Mitt would protect our jobs as much as he could.”